Kurt Vonnegut’s Look at the Birdie—the last of the wine?

The fiction of Kurt Vonnegut  is something I always took for granted while he was alive. There would always be more of it, just like the world never runs out of David Letterman. Kurt would be there with Dave on late night TV, too—and at colleges, reminding us to be kind to one another and remember our good teachers.

I miss Kurt Vonnegut now. I was happy to see this slim volume of unpublished short stories appear at my local sf book store several months ago. It’s one more chance to hear his voice. The last one? I don’t know.

Kurt Vonnegut’s  irreverent voice was (is) as natural to the symphonies of science fiction as brass instruments are to an orchestral ensemble. His first published short story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” earned Vonnegut a canonical place in American Literature as a tolerable “representative of science fiction.” After an initial sale to Collier’s Weekly in 1950, the story was dutifully reprinted in English textbooks all over the United States. (It was there in my junior year high school textbook, sandwiched between Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and Bret Harte’s “The Luck of the Roaring Camp.”)

After the success of his first novel, Player Piano, Vonnegut spent a good part of his life denying his literary connection with science fiction. Readers of Vonnegut’s later work will probably have encountered Kilgore Trout, the failed science fiction writer he invented. Trout is a major character in two novels, Jailbird and Timequake. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut said of him: “Like most science-fiction writers, Trout knew almost nothing about science.” Vonnegut used Trout as an example of the crackpottery and futility he felt was implicit in the genre of science fiction. He described the natural home of Trout’s novels as “the window of a dirty bookstore, covered in fly shit and dust.”

Yet, again and again in Vonnegut novels, the ideas expressed by Kilgore Trout are a formative influence on the story narrative and on the thinking of his protagonists. There’s a certain buzz among critics and fans that Trout was intended to be a caricature of Robert Heinlein. Actually, the name is probably derived from a short story called “Killdozer,” written by Theodore Sturgeon. But the sf author I  see the most of in Kilgore Trout is Philip K. Dick—fly-specked pages in crumbly paperbacks and all.

Look at the Birdie is a posthumous collection of fourteen previously-unpublished Vonnegut “drawer stories.” The book’s Foreward explains that the collection was assembled by Sidney Offit, a long time friend. Each story is illustrated by a piece of Vonnegut line art. I like the illustrations. If Vonnegut were still around, I’d want to hit him up for fillos for my fanzine.

The stories in Look at the Birdie are mostly not science fiction. The devastating irony that Vonnegut would display in his later novels is not so much in evidence here. But, in my judgment as a lay reader of mainstream and genre fiction for fifty years, these are good, readable short stories. Aspiring writers attempting to magnetize the eyes of a first reader might do worse than to study Vonnegut’s cantata-like prefaces and scene-framing opening gambits:

“Confido”: “The summer had died peacefully in its sleep, and Autumn, as soft-spoken executrix, was locking life up safely until Spring came to claim it.”

“Hall of Mirrors”: “There was a parking lot, and then a guitar school, and then Fred’s O.K. Used Car Lot, and then the hypnotist’s house, and then a vacant lot with the foundation of a mansion still on it, and then the Beeler Brothers’ Funeral Home.”

“Look at the Birdie”: “I was sitting in a bar one night, talking rather loudly about a person I hated—and a man with a beard sat down beside me, and he said amiably, ‘Why don’t you have him killed?'”

The flavor in some of the stories is evocative of the early work of Theodore Sturgeon. Two or three others remind me strongly of Don Marquis. (Codgerly footnote: Don Marquis, well-known in his time as a columnist for the New York Sun, wrote several volumes of excellent short stories in the 1920s and ’30s. Marquis is now primarily remembered for penning the “vers libre” adventures of archie and mehitabel.)

I had fun trying to place the time in Vonnegut’s writing career when the stories in Look at the Birdie were written. Without resorting to Google, I immediately got the impression of early 1950s. In the Preface to Bagombo Snuff Box (another Vonnegut collection that’s well worth reading), Peter Reed reports: “Vonnegut began writing short stories in the late 1940s, while employed in public relations at General Electric in Schenectady, New York.[….] Throughout the ’50s and ’60s,  he wrote many stories which were published in Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Argosy, Redbook, and other magazines. ” 

Look at the Birdie is the second posthumous collection of Vonnegut’s work. The General Electric-Schenectady connection is apparent in “Fubar,” a story about what happens when public relations clerk Fuzz Littler is reassigned to an abandoned building in the General Forge and Foundry Company.  

“A Song for Selma” is one of Vonnegut’s stories that chronicle the adventures of high school bandmaster George Helmholtz. Reading this evoked my own high school memories of white marching suits and trombone spit. (Several other George Helmholtz adventures appear in Bagombo Snuffbox.)

“Ed Luby’s Key Club” is the longest story in the book (52 pages)—and the one that most reminds me of Don Marquis. The first review I found of the collection panned this story  as a “B-grade noir film.” I found it to be a poetic narrative (almost like a ballad).  The story unfolds complication upon complication as it declaims the destruction  of innocence by villainy and small-town political corruption. Dave Eggers backs me up on this in The New York Times Sunday Book Reviewwriting that “Ed Luby’s Key Club” contains “action-­packed twists and turns, a high-speed escape and, ultimately, justice.”

If you’re wondering about my “Sturgeon-flavor” claim for some of the other stories, take another look at the opening sentence (quoted above) from the title story,Look at the Birdie.” Check out this excerpt of that story and compare it with this (starting around “Still the barroom philospher,” Killilea sneered).

I really like seven or eight of the fourteen stories that appear in this book. “Hello Red” is another ballad-like narrative—about the homecoming of a merchant sailor after nine years at sea. “Hall of Mirrors” is a short police procedural, in which hypnotism spawns  a 1950s version of an unreliable-narrator acid trip. “Shout about it from the Housetops,” “King and Queen of the Universe,” and “The Good Explainer” are O. Henry-like morality plays.

If you like reading Vonnegut, the essayist and commencement speaker, you may enjoy the photographic facsimile included in the book as a bonus Preface:  a 1951 letter from Vonnegut to Walter M. Miller, Jr.  Sidney Offit, the editor of the collection, sums up my feelings in his Foreward:

The discovery of this sampling of vintage Vonnegut confirms the accessibility that is the trademark of his style and the durability of his talents, a gift to us all—friends and readers who celebrate the enlightenments and the fun of Kurt Vonnegut’s jujitsus and his art.

Lenny Bailes is a longtime science fiction fan, who helps put on small sf literary conventions and even still publishes a fanzine. IT specialist by day and college instructor by night, he desperately tries to find time for other reading, writing, and music making.


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