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`A Man Without a Country': Vonnegut can make you laugh, cry

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"A Man Without a Country" by Kurt Vonnegut; Seven Stories ($23.95)


At 82, Kurt Vonnegut is still up to his old tricks, trying to hide his cheeriness behind a mask of gloom - or is it the other way around?

Vonnegut, author of more than two dozen books of fiction and nonfiction, is either the world's most optimistic pessimist or its most pessimistic optimist, and his new collection of essays, "A Man Without a Country," is filled with his usual contradictory mix of joy and sorrow, hope and despair, humor and gravity.

Much of what's here first appeared in various formats (essays, dialogue, even a short note to readers about his thoughts at Christmas 2004) in the left-leaning Chicago magazine In These Times, and Vonnegut sometimes seems to be preaching to the liberal choir.

He's direct in saying what he thinks about the president and his pals ("George W. Bush has gathered around him upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, ... plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, ... the medical term for smart, personable people who have no consciences"), Americans' dependence on oil ("We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial"), the war in Iraq, ("our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we're hooked on"), the damage we've done to the environment ("we ... have now all but destroyed this once salubrious planet as a life-support system"), and the future of our country ("there is not a chance in hell" it can become "the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of").

Because Americans now present themselves to the world as "proud, grinning, jut-jawed, pitiless war-lovers," because "our unelected leaders have dehumanized millions and millions of human beings simply because of their religion and race," and because we have "dehumanized our own soldiers, not because of their religion or race, but because of their low social class," Vonnegut calls himself "a man without a country" - except, he says, for librarians (who have "staunchly resisted" censors and government snoops seeking library records), and (not surprisingly) In These Times magazine.

But in fact, there are other sources of illumination in Vonnegut's mostly dark world. He likes big families ("A few Americans, but very few, still have extended families. The Navahos. The Kennedys."), music ("It makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it."), the arts generally ("They are a very human way of making life more bearable" and "a way to make your soul grow."), the clerk who sells him stamps at his post office near the United Nations ("Sometimes her hair will be all frizzy. Sometimes she will have ironed it flat. One day she was wearing black lipstick. This is all so exciting and so generous of her, just to cheer us all up, people from all over the world."), and making people laugh.

Right from the beginning, Vonnegut tells us that as a child, with talkative parents and two older siblings, "at the dinner table when I was very young, I was boring to all those other people," and "the only way I could get into a conversation was to say something funny."

If humor started off as a way for him to join the discussion, it seems to have changed over the decades into "a way of holding off how awful life can be, to protect yourself." But finally, Vonnegut says, "you get just too tired, and the news is too awful, and humor doesn't work anymore." Now, he laments, "It may be that I am no longer able to joke - that it is no longer a satisfactory defense mechanism."

But there is still humor in Vonnegut's writing, as well as tenderness (see the piece about extended families, and the one about his being a Luddite) and even hope, implicit in a simple admonishment to everyone: "Be honorable."

"A Man Without a Country" is filled with admonishments. Here's one of my favorites:

"Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different."

Including Kurt Vonnegut.


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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