Caught Up in “Catch-22″

Reading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) on the heels of reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), as I did recently, is like taking a ride in that contraption that was featured in the film, An Officer and a Gentleman. You know the one: a diabolical training exercise that was meant to simulate for Navy Flight School candidates what it’s like to experience a sea-going plane crash. The machine slams you hard into a deep pool of cold, murky water, twists and spins you around so that you are punchy, shaken, disoriented, with no idea which way is up or down. Many aspiring pilots washed out after confronting this bit of controlled mayhem.

Yeah, so reading Catch-22 is kind of like that.

catch22

It’s a topsy turvy universe that Heller has concocted for our elucidation and entertainment. And it’s soooo different from the world of To Kill a Mockingbird (which was published just the previous year).  In fact, Catch-22 is the anti-Mockingbird.

Mockingbird is all about learning how to be a responsible adult: how to see things from others’ points of view, how to care about the less fortunate, how to stand up for what’s right. Even though the novel darkens near the end with the tragedy of Tom Robinson’s false conviction and death, it is nevertheless an optimistic book. One feels that the good guys–like the grandly heroic Atticus Finch and his children–will eventually prevail.

Catch-22 posits quite the opposite: a nightmare world where there are no heroes, where everyone’s motives are suspect, where stupidity and incompetence and ugliness and squalor and death reign supreme. Where the best are ineffectual losers and the worst are firmly in charge.

The story follows one Captain John Yossarian as he struggles to maintain his life and sanity as a B-25 bombardier in a U.S. Army Air Forces unit based on the Italian island of Pianossa. (Heller, himself, was a bombardier who flew 60 combat missions in Europe during World War II.)

For my money, Catch-22 remains the best modern war novel ever written (sorry Ernest Hemingway, sorry James Jones, sorry Michael Herr, sorry Tim O’Brien, sorry all you other guys). Can’t think of a novel that so perfectly captures the real state of modern warfare.

It’s amazing to think that Heller wrote most of the book–not in the turbulent, counter-cultural upheavals of the late Sixties, nor the cynical, post-Watergate Seventies–but in the Fifties (he began the book in 1953 and finally published it in 1961).

While the rest of America was in a period of materialistic somnambulism, Heller was writing this explosive diatribe against . . . conformity, mindless patriotism, bureaucratic bumbling, state-sanctioned hypocrisy and the whole depressing tenor of modern life. While Catch-22 is, of course, a war novel . . . it is really about something even bigger and more threatening: the rise of the amoral, soulless, mind-numbing bureaucratic machine that forms much of modern society.

Here’s Heller on Major Major’s right-wing, alfalfa-farmer father:

He was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. . . . His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. . . .

So while Mockingbird was teaching us lessons about becoming moral, upright young people, Catch-22 was schooling us about being skeptical and questioning authority and suspecting people’s motives and seeing life through a corrective lens of irony.

These two oil-and-water books–so different in almost every conceivable way–form the alpha and omega of the Baby Boomer literary experience. And with Mockingbird and Catch-22 as the bookends for the Baby Boom generation, it’s a wonder that all of us Baby Boomers didn’t turn out to be raging schizos (or did we?).

catch_22 bomber

The really interesting thing about Catch-22 is how it manages this wonderful balancing act: on the one hand it is absolutely funny, darkly funny, infuriatingly funny, funny in a way many of us had never experienced before . . . and sets this humor . . . against a backdrop of stupidity, incompetence, heartlessness, terror, and death. Always death.

The book manages to tickle our funny bones while it touches our heartstrings. And that ain’t easy, boys and girls. It’s not too hard to do one or the other, but to combine satire with heartfelt emotion, to create characters who we can laugh at and yet cry for. That’s art of the highest order.

So what is Heller up to here?

Essentially he’s telling us that even a “good war” like World War II is no walk in the park. That even if the cause is just, even if intentions are noble–every war is in essence a kind of a gruesome lab experiment: put human beings in a frightening, horrible, confusing, brutalizing environment and see what happens to them.

And the results of the experiment are invariably the same: the moments we all like to celebrate and remember and make movies about–moments of valor and glory–are inextricably mixed in with many, many more moments of boredom and malice and incompetence and cruelty.

When I was in grad school at Rutgers in the Seventies I was lucky enough to have as a teacher one of our finest writers about modern warfare, Paul Fussell (who won the National Book Award for his ground-breaking, 1975 The Great War and Modern Memory). Fussell was a professor of literature, but also happened to be a WWII combat vet who was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for action in France.

Fussell had plenty to say about our tendency to mindlessly glorify and sugar-coat the grim reality of modern warfare. This is from the preface to his book about WWII, Wartime:

The damage the war visited upon bodies and buildings, planes and tanks and ships, is obvious. Less obvious is the damage it did to intellect, discrimination, honesty, individuality, complexity, ambiguity, and irony, not to mention privacy and wit. For the past fifty years the Allied war has been sanitized and romanticized almost beyond recongnition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant, and the bloodthirsty. I have tried to balance the scales.

I suspect this is what Heller is up to as well in Catch-22–just trying to balance the scales.

So for all the reassuring media images of super-competent military leadership, steely-eyed, determined warriors calmly and superbly guiding their men with unflinching resolve and for the noblest of intentions, he gives us the opposite view.

Colonel Cathcart, for instance, the group commander who keeps raising the number of combat missions the men must fly before they can go home–from 35 to 4o to 45 to . . . 80. And why? When there are many replacement crews available and ready to relieve the exhausted and brutalized airmen?

So he can look good to his superiors (his only ace card, he realizes, is not the quality of his command but the sheer number of missions he can make his men fly) and, perhaps most importantly for him, to win a coveted cover story in The Saturday Evening Post.

Or the mind-bogglingly incompetent and aptly named Lieutenant Scheisskopff whose funny/scary obsession with military parades and utter unsuitability as a leader of men inevitably (in this bureaucratic nightmare world Heller has concoted) leads to his promotion to general by the end of the book.

joseph heller

There are so many great moments and so much great writing that I can only give you a few snippets.

Here’s Heller describing the concept of “Catch-22″ in all its mind-numbing absurdity:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed. (46)

And, of course, the novel’s centerpiece is the terrifying raid over Avignon. Throughout the novel the narrator comes back to the mission again and again, like a bad tooth that he can’t help prodding with his tongue. Until, toward the end of Catch-22, we finally find out what happened to Snowden, a member of Yossarian’s crew on that ill-fated mission.

The scene is one of the most intense and horrifying in all of literature: a shaken Yossarian goes to the back of the heavily-damaged plane to tend to Snowden, who has a gaping, football-sized wound in his thigh. Yossarian conscientiously manages to staunch the bleeding and dress the wound and is feeling somewhat relieved about Snowden’s prospects for survival when . . .

But Snowden kept shaking his head and pointed at last, with just the barest movement of his chin, down toward his armpit. Yossarian bent forward to peer and saw a strangely colored stain seeping through the coveralls just above the armhole of Snowden’s flak suit. Yossarian felt his heart stop, then pound so violently he found it difficult to breathe. Snowden was wounded inside his flak suit. Yossarian ripped open the snaps of Snowden’s flak suit and heard himself scream wildly as Snowden’s insides slithered down to the floor in a soggy pile and just kept dripping out. . . .

“I’m cold,” Snowden whimpered. “I’m cold.”

“There, there,” Yossarian mumbled mechanically in a voice too low to be heard. “There, there.”

catch-22 cover

Funny thing is the very first time I read the book was in a totally loopy manner that might have appealed to Heller’s twisted sense of humor.

I was probably 13 or 14 when I noticed the book on my older brother’s desk (a beat-up 95-cent Dell paperback as I recall). The title intrigued me a bit–I had never heard the term “Catch-22″–and wondered what the heck it might mean.

So I took a look. Then another. Then another. I admit it was the sex that first captured my post-pubescent attention. I raced through the book searching out the titillating “dirty parts”–mostly the scenes in the Roman brothels where Yossarian and Nately and the rest of the airmen go for R&R.

I would sneak peaks at the book when my brother left our shared bedroom or when he was out of the house altogether. I was, it goes without saying, way too young to be reading the novel, and certainly way too young to truly grasp its dark humor or grim lessons.

I find it so humorous to recall that long-ago first “reading” (if that’s what you would call it): hunting for stray mentions of naked young prostitutes or barely mentioned sex acts. In retrospect, Catch-22 may be the least erotic novel ever written, but back then pickings were very slim in the erotica department for an adolescent boy. We had to make do with what little scraps of titillation we could find.

But while I was searching for mentions of young girls and naked flesh, Catch-22 was inadvertently teaching me lessons . . . lessons about warfare, about human nature, about irony, about life. Lessons that have stayed with me ever since.

Yossarian Lives

So if you are not a Baby Boomer and want to figure out why the older generation can seem so squirrely and schizoid at times, I suggest you run out and read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Heller’s Catch-22 back to back. That experience may tell you all you need to know about us, where we came from, what we value, and why The Books that Mattered, matter.

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Beat This! My Ten Favourite Drummers…

Erich Rupprecht:

Check out this very cool post on great drummers from Tom George, a very cool Liverpudlian (I always wanted to say that!)

Originally posted on TOM GEORGE ARTS:

As a kid, I had so much rhythm bursting out of my soul that I would play on anything, with anything. I would tap on school desks with pens, then click my teeth together as I walked home. In the lounge, I would line up cushions on the sofa and hit them with wooden spoons while playing loud music on the stereo.

It was my sister who suggested I save up for a drum kit, and get serious about music. Years later, I’ve moved onto guitar but I still play drums on my recordings.

Here are the ten drummers that made the most impression on me. Whether or not you’re a drummer, I hope you enjoy the clips, which feature some great music.

Stewart Copeland
Stewart Copeland was at the heart of The Police’s reggae-influenced New Wave sound. Their hits like Message in a Bottle and Walking on the Moon…

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Walt Whitman: Patron Saint of … Bloggers?

I’m going to go completely off-topic for this post. It’s coming up on my fifth-month anniversary of blogging . . .  it’s a brisk 8 degrees out there in frozen New Jersey . . . and I feel like connecting. Not reviewing, not analyzing, not dissecting . . . just. . . connecting.

ww

So instead of writing about one of The Books That Mattered as I’ve been doing for the past five months, I’m going to spend a few moments talking about Walt Whitman. The good gray poet who spent the latter part of his life in Camden, NJ–not too many miles from where I sit looking out my window at the frozen tundra that used to be my back yard.

(For those of you who are not in the United States, we are in the midst of one of the most bone-chilling and relentless winters on record.)

I got to thinking this frozen morning about Walt and one of my favorite poems of his:

A Noiseless Patient Spider

 

A noiseless patient spider,

I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, 

Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, 

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,

Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

 

And you O my soul where you stand, 

Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, 

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,

Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, 

Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

1868

Back in the day, before blogging and tweeting and texting and YouTubing, back even before emails and surfing the web, I used to think this poem was about . . . writing poetry.

But now that I’m both older and younger than I was back then, it dawns on me that “A Noiseless Patient Spider” is not just about writing poetry, not even just about writing, it is really about trying to make a connection . . . any kind of connection.

And really, when you think about it, what are all these blogs and tweets and texts, but all of us noiseless, patient spiders isolated on our little promontories, relentlessly sending out these little filaments of ourselves, hoping that they catch somewhere.

Keeping track of the number of hits we’ve managed to generate, checking our in-boxes for comments, hoping against hope that our posts or tweets or YouTube videos or whatever we’re sending out there will have made a connection with someone, somewhere.

And that thought warms my soul a bit.

walt whitman

Because the fact that so many of us are involved in this brave, foolish, all-too-human enterprise suggests that poor, isolated, misunderstood Walt Whitman was right. That we are all noiseless, patient spiders trying to connect with each other any which way we can.

And in a way that he never could have foreseen, after 150 years Walt’s silvery filaments are still reaching out across time and space, still catching hold.

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“To Kill a Mockingbird”: Great Book But Not a Great Novel?

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is perhaps the quintessential Book That Mattered: one of the moral touchstones of an entire generation.

It is a book that many of us Baby Boomers (and non-Baby Boomers) fondly recall reading in our younger years, many of us when we were still in high school.

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And yet, reading Mockingbird again after forty years or so . . . hate to say it . . . but it is not a great novel. Not even close. I’m not even sure it’s a very good novel. It’s a little too black and white, too unshaded, too stylistically uninventive to rank up there with the best novels of our time.

So we have a bit of a dilemma: here’s a book that many of us love and admire–but, when considered objectively, is not really a very impressive work of art.

How to solve it?

Let’s take a hint from Wallace Stevens and his great poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and consider To Kill a Mockingbird from a number of different perspectives. After all, as Atticus Finch continually reminds us in the novel, we should look at life from other viewpoints:

View #1: WhileTo Kill a Mockingbird” is Not a Great Novel–It Is a Great Book

There are some works of art that never gain much influence or importance in the wider world, that simply never reach or touch many people.

For all its purported greatness, for instance, how many people–even well-educated, well-read people–have actually been affected by Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake? (OK, show of hands, how many of us have actually made it past the first couple of pages?)

On the other hand, there are certain books that are important and influential, that matter to a great many people, that do much good in the world, but nevertheless are not enduring works of art. (Uncle Tom’s Cabin pops to mind.)

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those.

Lee’s novel was a crucial text for those of us coming of age in the Sixties and Seventies. The book taught us about racial tolerance and understanding, about seeing things from another’s perspective, about standing up for what is right–no matter what those around you believe or do.

So what if Mockingbird strikes us today as a little clunky, a little preachy, a little too pat to be considered high art: it may not be a great piece of literature, but it is indisputably a Book That Mattered.

I don’t think I’m being too hard on the book. Here’s just one example of the novel’s occasional ham-fistedness. Scout Finch’s third-grade teacher has been passionately criticizing Hitler and the Nazis for their treatment of the Jews in (pre-war) Germany. Scout asks her brother Jem about it:

“Miss Gates is a nice lady, ain’t she?”

“Why sure,” said Jem. “I liked her when I was in her room.”

“She hates Hitler a lot . . .”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Well, she went on today about how bad it was him treatin’ the Jews like that. Jem, it’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? . . .

“. . . Well, coming out of the courthouse that night . . . I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ‘em [blacks] a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ turn around and be ugly about folks right at home–”

See what I mean? Not too subtle.

Despite all this, though, Mockingbird was an essential building block in my generation’s moral development. What would the Baby Boom generation be without To Kill a Mockingbird? What would any of us be without it?

to kill a mockingbird

View #2: “Mockingbird” Was a Crucial Plea for Racial Justice at a Critical Time in Our History

Let’s not forget that the novel was published in 1960: on the cusp of the great civil rights upheavals that would roil the nation in the coming decade.

Suddenly, here was a best-selling, Pulitzer-Prize winning book that highlighted and questioned the racial hatred and hypocrisy of the Jim Crow South. Impossible to quantify the book’s precise influence, but it undoubtedly did some good. Probably a great deal of good.

And it was a courageous thing for a young white southern lady from Monroeville, Alabama (not exactly the epicenter of progressive racial attitudes back then) to write a book like this in a place like that.

Even though the novel is set in the Depression, its message was aimed directly at contemporary readers and the contemporary situation. It was undoubtedly the right book at the right time.

Here are Jem Finch and Miss Maudie (a neighbor of the Finches) discussing the guilty verdict that has been delivered against Tom Robinson, the innocent black man accused of raping a white girl. Jem has been lamenting the fact that no one in town (with the exception of Atticus, his father) was willing to stand up for Tom Robinson:

“Who in this town did one thing to help Tom Robinson, just who?”

“His colored friends for one thing, and people like us. People like Judge Taylor. People like Heck Tate. . . . .

“. . . I was sittin’ there on the porch last night, waiting. I waited and waited to see you all come down the sidewalk, and as I waited I thought, Atticus Finch won’t win, he can’t win, but he’s the only man in these parts who can keep a jury out so long in a case like that. And I thought to myself, well, we’re making a step–it’s just a baby-step, but it’s a step.”

View #3: It’s Best to Think of “Mockingbird” as a Young Adult Novel

I don’t believe the term, “young adult fiction” had become an official designation back in 1960. But maybe some of our dilemma about it’s not being a great work of fiction goes away if we just accept the fact that Mockingbird is really a “young adult novel.”

If we all agree that’s what it is, then many of the novel’s shortcomings–the stylistic straightforwardness, the black and white character depictions, the lack of nuance and shading that we would expect (even demand) in a novel aimed at adults–are ameliorated.

Of course! . . . it’s a novel for young people: teenagers, high school kids, freshman in college. Young adults need literature that is reassuring and morally unambiguous. In YA books characters can be (in fact, perhaps need to be) as clearly drawn and uncomplicated as possible: as purely evil as Bob Ewell, the white trash villain of the piece who tries to kill the two young Finch children, or as unabashedly heroic as Atticus Finch.

The novel never asks us for a minute to have more than one view of Atticus Finch:

“Have you ever thought about it this way, Alexandra? Whether Maycomb knows it or not, we’re paying the highest tribute we can pay a man. We trust him to do right. It’s that simple.”

Perhaps we should all just agree with Flannery O’Connor’s early evaluation of Mockingbird as a child’s book (I suspect that if the term “young adult novel” had been in vogue at the time, that’s the designation she would have used). Doing so takes some of the pressure off the book and some of the pressure off of us as readers:

I think for a child’s book it does all right. It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a child’s book. Somebody ought to say what it is.

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View #4: Atticus Finch is the Greatest Dad in All Literature.

Has there ever been a better literary dad than Atticus Finch? Even-tempered, articulate, understanding, morally irreproachable. The novel not only insists that Atticus is a great man, great father, great lawyer. He’s a great shot, too!

Which Scout Finch learns to her astonishment when (in her young eyes) boring, middle-aged Atticus calmly shoots down a mad dog with dead-eye precision–even though Atticus adamantly refuses to own or carry a gun:

Miss Maudie grinned wickedly. “Well now, Miss Jean Louise,” she said, “still think your father can’t do anything? Still ashamed of him?

“Nome,” I said meekly.

“Forgot to tell you the other day . . . Atticus Finch was the deadest shot in Maycomb County in his time. . . . . didn’t you know his nickname was Ol’ One-Shot when he was a boy?”

It’s no coincidence that Gregory Peck–who won an Academy Award for playing Atticus in the 1962 film version of Mockingbird (has there ever been a more inspired casting choice?)–was the spitting image of Clark Kent.

Because, no doubt about it, Atticus was Super-Dad. He seamlessly joined the pantheon of great dads from the Fifties and Sixties: Jim Anderson in Father Knows Best, Ozzie Nelson in Ozzie and Harriet, Ward Cleaver of Leave it to Beaver. But with a moral authority and heroic stoicism that even this group couldn’t match.

Unlike my own father, Atticus never raised his voice, lost his cool, or flew off the handle. He was never too tired after coming home from work to provide his children with a reassuring bromide or two.

He was the ideal dad we all yearned for. Oh, how I envied Scout:

“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view–”

“Sir?”

“–until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

[Of course, I would eventually realize that a blue collar guy like my German immigrant dad--who worked seven days a week, came home exhausted and drenched in sweat and grease from his mechanic's job, and somehow managed to send five kids through college--was the real hero. But back then, I would have swapped my earthy, heavily-accented dad for white-collar, smooth-talking Atticus in a heartbeat.]

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View #5: “Mockingbird” Perfectly Captures the Rhythms of Childhood

As I was re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird, it struck me that the novel is really a kind of extended hymn to childhood.

The novel captures the feeling of being a child, of long, seemingly endless summer days, and of trying to fill them up with adventures and story-telling and role-playing. The Boo Radley subplot is really the stuff of childhood imagination, of kids with lots of time on their hands and nary an adult in sight.

Here is Lee’s wonderful description of fictional Maycomb, Alabama:

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.

My favorite character in the novel is Dill, the pint-sized but imaginative and fearless friend who visits Maycomb each summer. I didn’t realize it when I first read the novel, but the character was patterned after Lee’s real-life childhood friend and eventual literary mentor, Truman Capote.

Here Scout and Jem meet Dill for the first time. Listen to how perfectly Harper Lee captures the rhythms and odd cadences of childhood interactions:

We went down to the wire fence to see if there was a puppy–Miss Rachel’s rat terrier was expecting–instead we found someone sitting looking at us. Sitting down, he wasn’t much higher than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke:

“Hey.”

“Hey yourself,” said Jem pleasantly.

“I’m Charles Baker Harris,” he said, “I can read.”

“So what?” I said.

“I just thought you’d like to know I can read. You got anything needs readin’ I can do it . . .”

View #6: “To Kill a Mockingbird” is Well Worth a Read (or Re-Read)

I don’t know why Harper Lee essentially stopped writing after To Kill a Mockingbird. (It was the only book she ever published.) She was also famously reticent about being interviewed or publically discussing the novel. Perhaps she had said all she had to say. Perhaps she realized that she would never again be able to write a book so pure and noble in its intentions.

Reading Mockingbird after all these years is like drinking from a crystal-clear Alabama mountain spring: pure, undiluted, unclouded, not the most complex or sophisticated of drinks . . . but oh so good for you.

 

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Five Things to Love about “Slaughterhouse-Five”

This may not come as a shock to many of you but Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is one terrific novel. Witty, thought-provoking, wise, profoundly moving.

Funny thing is, when I first read the book in my college years, I wasn’t at all sold on its brilliance or importance. I liked it OK. But it struck me back then as a bit too slight, too glib, too “easy” to be considered a great book.

In fact, I probably wouldn’t have even bothered to read Slaughterhouse again if not for my Books That Mattered blog.

[I must point out that I was definitely in the minority in my feelings about the novel. "Slaughterhouse-Five" is firmly ensconced on both the Modern Library's 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century list (#18) as well as Time Magazine's 100 Best Novels list.

When I quizzed Baby Boomers about the "books that mattered" to them, it was one of the most often-mentioned titles. So I guess I was a bit of an oddball in not loving the book back in the day.]

Slaughterhouse-Five Original

I suppose I read Kurt Vonnegut’s novel at exactly the wrong time for me to really appreciate it: my senior year of college (1974) when I was starting to get a little pretentious and precious in my literary leanings. I was really into modernism and Eliot and Pound and Joyce.  I had started to view literature as a kind of elaborate game of Clue–the more obscure and arcane the allusions, the better. In comparison, Vonnegut’s novel just seemed too transparent and accessible.

So let’s just say that Slaughterhouse-Five and I were not a perfect match back then.

Having just read the book again for the first time in 40 years, I’m a little mortified that I was so cavalier about the novel. What a little twerp I must have been. That great Dylan line flashes in my head: “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

It strikes me now that maybe I’ve learned a bit in the intervening years and one of the biggest lessons is that great literature doesn’t have to be difficult or knotty or complicated. It just needs to be.

Kurt Vonnegut

So how does Slaughterhouse-Five look all these years later?

Pretty awesome.

On re-reading it, there are five aspects of the novel that I especially love:

ASPECT #1: Vonnegut’s Humanism

I find myself particularly impressed with humanity of the book. I’d somehow formed the impression over the years that Vonnegut was a cynical, deeply pessimistic writer.

["Slaughterhouse-Five" is the only Vonnegut novel I've read so far. Note to self: read more Vonnegut.]

But reading Slaughterhouse now, my impression is quite the opposite. Vonnegut seems incredibly humane and generous and open-hearted.

Early in the novel the narrator recounts the biblical story of Lot. As we all remember, God destroyed the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, sparing only Lot and his wife. But Lot’s wife couldn’t resist taking a look back at the ruined cities (God had forbidden her to do so) and was instantly turned into a pillar of salt. Here’s his take on that story:

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.

Cynical? I think not.

Aspect #2: Vonnegut’s Playfulness

I also love Vonnegut’s ability to maintain a sense of humor even in the face of incredible darkness and tragedy. He is very funny, but never at the expense of his characters or his story. It is humor forged in the fires of hell.

Here, he recounts how he had been struggling for many years to write about the World War II fire-bombing of Dresden (an event that Vonnegut experienced first-hand as a young POW):

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”

“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say,” ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’”

Aspect #3: Vonnegut’s Narrative Experimentation

I don’t know about  you, but I am soooo tired of the whole “meta” thing: novelists whose novels are all about writing the novel you are reading; poems about how hard it is to write a poem; movie-makers whose movies are all about, yes, you guessed it . . . the movie they are making, etc. OK, we get the joke: everything we’re reading has been made up by the author. Can we please move on?

Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the few meta-narratives that actually work for me (Ian McEwan’s Atonement is another). Because the book is not only about the absurdities and horrors of war, but also about the absurdity of trying to write a novel about war.

Here’s the first paragraph of the novel, where the narrator clues us in on what he’s up to:

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

Unlike so many writers who employ meta-narratives in their works, in Slaughterhouse-Five, the technique works brilliantly. This is because in Vonnegut’s hands the blurring of the line between “fiction” and “reality”–between what is “made up” and what “really” happened–is not just a goof or a parlor trick.

There is real purpose here: Vonnegut is saying that the “truth” of Dresden is too big and awful and complicated to be communicated solely by fiction . . . or solely by non-fiction. In fact, trying to convey the truth of something like his wartime experiences overwhelms any traditional literary approach.

So when Vonnegut admits that he is both the author of the novel as well as a character (whom we occasionally glimpse on the sidelines of the action), it strikes the reader, not as trickery or game-playing. It feels like the work of someone who is desperately trying to come to grips with a reality that is so profound that none of the old rules apply.

Thus, the authorial intrusions, the jumping back and forth in time, the way the novel keeps circling back to the central story of Billy Pilgrim’s experiences in Germany: the reader feels there is no other possible way to tell this particular story. Which is as it should be.

slaughterhouse-five

Aspect#4: The Tralfamadorians

No matter what you may have heard, let me just say it here: Slaughterhouse-Five is not a work of science fiction.

That may be part of the reason that I was a little unappreciative of the novel back in the day: not having read any Vonnegut before, I was expecting a little more of a mainstream SF novel.

Unlike true science fiction, I don’t think for a second we are supposed to take the Tralfamadorians (the aliens who abduct Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, and put him in a zoo on their planet) seriously or as realistic depictions of an alien life form. They are clearly a literary device meant to act as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on and pointing out the absurdity of being human:

. . . they were two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. . . . The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three.

Looking at it now, I’d put the novel more in the “imaginative satire” camp than SF (more like Swift’s Gulliver Travels than, say, Dune or Childhood’s End).

Nevertheless, the Tralfamadorians are a marvelous invention. Perhaps the most interesting thing about them is their conception of time. Here is Billy Pilgrim in a letter trying to describe how Tralfamadorians view things:

“. . . when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are . . . It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

I suppose the real question is: how seriously are we supposed to take the Tralfamadorians and their world-view? On the one hand, their approach is appealingly Zen-like and serene: accepting whatever happens because it has always happened and always will happen.

And yet, being human, can we ever learn to just accept things (such as Dresden)? Can we ever really hope to adopt the Tralfamadorian viewpoint:

“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’”

 Aspect #5: Vonnegut’s Depiction of War

Has there ever been a scene that more economically and chillingly depicts the tragedy of war than the moment in Slaughterhouse-Five when Billy and his fellow POWs emerge from their bomb shelter after one of the most savage and destructive acts in all of human history: the firebombing of the beautiful city of Dresden.

There was a firestorm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.

It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.

So it goes.

135,000 people–mostly civilians, thousands upon thousands of women and children–were incinerated in one of the most pointless acts of warfare in human history. The civilian death toll was nearly that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

No one contests the fact that Dresden had virtually no value as a military target. It was sheer, wanton destruction. Twenty-three-year-old Kurt Vonnegut was there to witness it all. And was destined to one day come back to it in his imagination and relive it all again for our benefit.

so it goes

Slaughterhouse-Five is one writer’s noble attempt to make sense of the senseless.

It is a book that should be read by anyone who is seduced by the “glory” of war, or the idea of a “good war,” or the notion that civilian deaths can be written off as “collateral damage,” or any of the other fictions we tell ourselves to make war seem less barbaric than it always is.

It was a must-read back in 1969 when it was first published and remains even more of a must-read today.

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5 Groovy Things You’ll Learn from “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”

Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) is a perfect time capsule.

Reading it today is like taking an acid trip in Mr. Peabody’s “way back machine”–it’s a frenetic, dizzying, eye-popping journey into the heart and soul of what would become known as the psychedelic era.

Acid Test is the ideal vehicle for glimpsing and vicariously experiencing the foolish/noble/brave/excessive experiment in living and consciousness that Ken Kesey and his band of followers (the so-called Merry Pranksters) ushered in.

The hippie/psychedelic movement–and what it ultimately represented–has been fiercely debated for over four decades now. But there is no debate that the one indispensable chronicle of that era is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

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For many people nowadays, the hippie/psychedelic era is pretty much summed-up by the love beads and tie-dyed shirts and headbands they don for a Halloween costume party.

But Wolfe’s book is a vivid reminder of how much more was going on back then. Yes, there was epic foolishness and epic posturing and loads of questionable, risky, even dangerous behavior . . . but there was also something uplifting and daring and even–can we say it now?–admirable about the whole crazy enterprise.

Re-reading Acid Test in 2014, you realize that many of the hallmarks (and eventual clichés) of the hippie era were actually invented by Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Not just the trappings, but the root essence of the era. This is all captured and distilled in Wolfe’s ground-breaking and still thrilling account.

So here are 5 GROOVY THINGS you can learn from reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test:

tom wolfe

GROOVY THING #1:

It’s impossible to write about Wolfe’s writing WITHOUT . . . starting to MIMIC HIS STYLE!!!!:::::::YEEEESSSS!!

Wolfe has his detractors, but for those of us who buy into his approach and style, his prose is so much fun that it starts seeping into our pores. His writing bristles with energy and vitality . . . it wriggles on the page like a living thing. It’s so organic and tactile I found it hard to pick out short quotes to capture the essence of his style.

His words swirl and swoop and dive and double-back and soar. Half the time, you find yourself just holding on for dear life.

Here he is trying to define the essence of the Prankster world view, trying to figure out what it all means. You can see his mind working:

. . . there was no theology to it, no philosophy, at least not in the sense of an ism. There was no goal of an improved moral order in the world or an improved social order, nothing about salvation and certainly nothing about immortality or the life hereafter. Hereafter! That was a laugh. If there was ever a group devoted totally to the here and now it was the Pranksters.  I remember puzzling over this. There was something so . . . religious in the air, in the very atmosphere of the Prankster life, and yet one couldn’t put one’s finger on it. On the face of it there was just a group of people who had shared an unusual psychological state, the LSD experience–

But exactly! The experience–that was the word! and it began to fall into place. . . .

He goes on to detail how the LSD experience was similar to the kind of transcendent experience that all the great world religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc.) were founded on:

” . . . none of them began with a philosophical framework or even a main idea. They all began with an overwhelming new experience . . . the sense of being a vessel of the divine, of the All-one. . . .”

And that experience is at the heart of the Acid Test–dividing the uninitiated from the initiated, the profane from the holy, the straight from the stoned. As Jimi Hendrix would famously ask: “Have you ever been experienced?”

And has there has ever been a more seamless match between subject matter and style than this book? I don’t think so.

kool-aid bus

GROOVY THING #2:

The SEEDS OF THE HIPPIE ERA were actually sewn–not at Woodstock in 1969, nor in the “Summer of Love” in 1967, not even in Haight-Ashbury in 1966–but much earlier . . . in the EARLY SIXTIES . . . . . . . . . . . .  By the time the REST OF THE COUNTRY was hip to Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, their thing was ESSENTIALLY OVER!!!!!

It’s amazing to realize that Ken Kesey was one of the very first in the whole world to try the new drug, LSD (years before it would become widespread and then criminalized). Starting in 1959, Kesey volunteered for a government-sponsored experimental program at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park, California in which he was given a number of “psychomimetic” drugs (including mescaline, cocaine, psilocybin, DMT, and, of course, LSD). It was LSD that Kesey found to be the most profoundly mind-altering. And the psychedelic era was abornin’ . . .

In the early 1960s, Kesey began his serious experiment in drug-taking and consciousness-altering in Perry Lane, a bohemian enclave situated across from a golf course, near Stanford University. Kesey attracted a group of like-minded experimentalists and away they went:

It was a strange feeling for all these good souls to suddenly realize that right here on woody thatchy little Perry Lane, amid the honeysuckle and dragonflies and boughs and leaves . . . this amazing experiment in consciousness was going on, out on a frontier neither they nor anybody else ever heard of before.

Later Kesey moved his group (what would later be called a “commune,” I suppose) to La Honda, California, a more remote location where this experiment in living would flower.

It’s hard to imagine how the rest of the country would have reacted to what Kesey and his followers (who eventually came to calling themselves the Merry Pranksters) were doing out there. The music provided by The Warlocks (eventually to be renamed The Grateful Dead), the Day-Glo posters, the drug-taking parties with the Hell’s Angels (!!!). Remember, this was years before LSD became a mainstream drug, before the term “hippie” had been coined, before the “Sixties” had really started:

And by and by, of course, the citizens of La Honda and others would start wondering . . . what are the ninnies doing? How to tell it? But there was no way to tell them about the experience. You couldn’t put it into words. . . .  The citizens couldn’t know about the LSD experience, because that door had never opened for them. To be on the threshold of–Christ! how to tell them about the life here? The Youth had always had only three options: go to school, get a job or live at home. And–how boring each was!–compared to the experience of . . . the infinite . . .

ken kesey

GROOVY THING #3:

KEN KESEY was one cool, LARGER-THAN-LIFE dude!!!!

He was voted “most likely to succeed” in high school. Was a star wrestler for the University of Oregon (a BMOC as they used to say back in the day). A grad student in the creative writing program at Stanford. Respected and popular novelist with the publication of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).

Wolfe paints Kesey as the classic charismatic leader: who leads not by force or bribery or trickery but simply because he is attractive and appealing and exudes  . . .  a larger-than-life aura . . . that makes others want to follow. Even though the Merry Pranksters were supposedly a purely democratic little club, there was little doubt that Kesey was their de facto leader.

Here is the way a late joiner to the Pranksters remembered Kesey:

Kesey was the most magnetic person she had ever met. He radiated something, a kind of power. His thoughts, the things he talked about, were very complex and metaphysical and cryptic but his manner was back-home, almost back-country. Even while he was reeking with paranoia, he seemed to have total confidence. That was very strange. He could make you feel like part of something very . . . He had even given her a new name, Black Maria. . . .

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

GROOVY THING #4: 

Many of the HALLMARKS (and what were to become the ENDURING CLICHES) of the HIPPIE ERA were actually . . . . GET THIS!!!  . . . INVENTIONS of Kesey and the Merry Pranksters!!!! YESSS . . .

Ever wonder where the Haight-Ashbury scene actually came from?  The seeds of the San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” in 1967? Day-Glo poster art? Strobe Lights? “Acid rock” and Edge City bands such as the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane? Amoeba light shows? Black lights? Brightly painted VW mini-vans tooling around the country crammed with freaks and freakettes??? Kids dressing up in tie-dyed shirts, headbands, American Indian garb, costumes of all sorts? Communal living? And, of course, the LSD experience as the main portal to a new consciousness?

You can thank (or blame–depending on your point of view) Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters for virtually all of the above . . .

By the time the hippie era had firmly taken hold, of course, Kesey was on the run in Mexico from drug charges and was already beginning to become distanced from the very scene and lifestyle he had helped birth. Even a visionary like Kesey couldn’t have foreseen how widely and rapidly his movement would become adopted:

The Watts test in L.A. [in February, 1966], coming on top of the Trips Festival in San Francisco, had caused the fast-rising psychedelic thing to explode right out of the underground in a way nobody had dreamed of . . . This new San Francisco-L.A. LSD thing, with wacked-out kids and delirious rock ‘n’ roll, made it seem like the dread LSD had caught on like an infection among the youth–which, in fact, it had. Very few realized that it had all emanated from one electric source: Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

merry-pranksters-1

[Timothy Leary visiting with Neal Cassady on the bus in 1964]

GROOVY THING #5:

The Merry Pranksters’ fabled bus trip of 1964 represents the logical culmination of Kerouac’s “ON THE ROAD” adventures. . . . . . Amazingly, NEAL CASSADY–the hyper-active, chain-smoking, pill-popping, lunatic driver–is a MAJOR FIGURE in both counter-cultural road stories!!!!!!

Imagine you are a farmer sleepily driving his tractor down the road somewhere in the mid-west in the summer of 1964. Suddenly you come upon . . .  a 1939 International Harvester bus covered in Day-Glo paint and festooned with the most vibrant, eye-popping images you have ever seen. At the wheel is one Neal Cassady (the figure on whom Kerouac’s Dean Moriarity was based), driving like an amphetamine-fueled madman (which he was).

Meanwhile, assorted weirdly costumed . . . FREAKS (there really is no other word) . . .  are hanging out of the windows of the bus, hooting and gesticulating, while one of the band, movie camera in hand, is shooting the entire scene as the bus barrels past. The front of the bus has a sign that says FURTHUR. As it rumbles on by, the sign on the rear bumper reads, CAUTION: WEIRD LOAD . . .  What to think?

Wolfe captures the weird and wonderful adventures of the Merry Pranksters as they made their epic 1964 cross-country road trip. By-standers didn’t realize that they were seeing the future rumble by, weren’t quite prepared for what else would be coming down the road in the next few years.

Even Timothy Leary and his east-coast LSD disciples didn’t quite know what to make of these madmen/madwomen. They were pretty cool towards Kesey and his ragged band when the Pranksters showed up uninvited to Leary’s sedate and tranquil Millbrook, NY retreat.

But really, who could have known how to react to Kesey and the Merry Pranksters?

. . . nobody really comprehended what was going on, except that it was a party. It was a party, all right. But in July of 1964 not even the hip world in New York was quite ready for the phenomenon of a bunch of people roaring across the continental U.S.A. in a bus covered with swirling Day-Glo mandalas aiming movie cameras and microphones at every freaking thing in this whole freaking country while Neal Cassady wheeled the bus around the high curves like super Hud and the U.S. nation streamed across the windshield like one of those goddamned Cinemascope landscape cameras . . .

So being “on the bus” became a kind of short-hand for the dividing line between the hip and the square, the holy fools and the establishment, the experienced and the non-experienced:

“There are going to be times,” says Kesey, “when we can’t wait for somebody. Now, you’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place–then it won’t make a damn.” And nobody had to have it spelled out for them. Everything was becoming allegorical, understood by the group mind, and especially this: “You’re either on the bus . . . or off the bus.”

A PERSONAL NOTE . . .

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I was definitely not “on the bus.”

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test still has particular resonance for me because back then, I was on the edges of the whole hippie scene. But never dead center.

Why? Mostly because of my age and temperament.

I was a little too young to be a real “hippie.” (I was only 12 when the famous “FURTHUR” bus trip happened; only 15 during the “Summer of Love.”) Even when I went to Woodstock, it was only because my older sister, Liz, was kind enough to let me tag along with her and her college friends (it was the summer before my senior year of high school). So the hippie life appealed but hard-core hippies tended to be a somewhat older crowd.

And temperamentally, I guess I was a little too straight. My roots were working-class, so while others kids might have felt comfortable blowing their parents’ tuition money and running off to San Francisco, I was busy working my way through college.

Finally, I was never really a drug-taker. Sure, like many kids my age I had smoked the occasional reefer. But never anything much harder. When I finally got around to trying LSD, I was already in grad school and experimented with it once. (It was a positive experience that I’ve never felt the necessity of repeating.)

Here’s what I and some of my family looked like back then.

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The photo above was taken in the early 1970s by my sister Claire (too bad she’s not in the picture, she was the most photogenic of us all). We are in front of the carousel in Central Park. From left to right:

  • Ed, my younger brother who would become a darned good musician
  • Liz, my older sister (she took me to Woodstock–bless her heart)
  • Susan, my then girlfriend, now lovely wife (of nearly 40 years!)
  • Me, with a very unfortunate Fu Manchu mustache
  • Phil, my brother-in-law, looking very Carlos Santana-ish (Phil and I attended Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys’ 1969 New Year’s Eve concert at the Fillmore East)

Suffice it to say we’ve all had better hair days.

FINALLY . . .

So for all you former hippies out there, or quasi-hippies like me, or hippies in spirit (like some of my younger acquaintances)–make the effort to read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It’s a LONG, STRANGE TRIP . . . but well worth it.

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1,000 Views . . . Break Out the Champagne!

I know, I know. You folks who have been blogging for years must think it’s pretty lame of me to get so giddy about reaching the millennium-mark in terms of blog views . . . but it’s a big deal to me. Especially since I started “The Books That Mattered” just four months ago (October 2013). I was a complete and utter blog virgin before then.

OTR

The verdict so far . . . writing this blog has been an utter blast; so much more involving and interesting and invigorating than I expected.

Books I’ve Covered so Far

  • The James Bond Books — Ian Fleming
  • The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  • On the Road — Jack Kerouac
  • The Catcher in the Rye — J. D. Salinger
  • Love Story — Erich Segal
  • Goodbye, Columbus — Philip Roth
  • One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — Ken Kesey
  • Soul on Ice — Eldridge Cleaver
  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull — Richard Bach
  • The Mole Family’s Christmas — Russell Hoban
  • Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas — Russell Hoban
  • A Christmas Memory — Truman Capote
  • The Fountainhead — Ayn Rand

Biggest (Positive) Surprise: The Bell Jar. I had thought it was a book strictly for confused coming-of-age girls, but boy was I wrong. So glad I finally got to read it.

Biggest (Negative) Surprise: The Fountainhead. As I mentioned in my post, if it weren’t for the Fifty Shades of Grey-type sex scenes, I don’t think I could have slogged through it. The tawdry politics and lousy prose are a perfect match.

Biggest Let-Down: On the Road. I still found some things to like, but the writing just didn’t hold up. It’s weird to see how differently you can react to a book from one reading (in your early twenties) to the next (in your early sixties).

Best Writing: Goodbye, Columbus. A writer of Philip Roth’s stature and longevity doesn’t get there by accident. He was a master right from the beginning. His prose is so clear and crisp and beautiful. It’s so good, I kind of hate his guts.

Most Fun Post to Write: “The Poop on . . . Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” It’s so much fun to write about a really bad book–you can let loose and have some yuks. (I also loved writing about Love Story — an equally terrible book.)

Best Part About Writing My Blog (#1): Connecting with old friends and making some new ones.

Best Part About Writing My Blog (#2): Revisiting some books that I haven’t read in forever, and getting a chance to read for the first time some terrific Baby Boom-era books.

So thanks to those of you who have been reading along. Please feel free to comment and let me know what’s on your mind — love to get feedback, hear suggestions, or just shoot the breeze.

On to the next 1,000 views!

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