When reviewing a book, it’s customary to provide readers with a succinct summation of the plot, I guess to help them determine whether or not it’s palatable to them, if it sounds in line with the type of stories they generally read. Though understandable to the extent that a hardened atheist wouldn’t want to read a novel espousing the manifold benefits of Christianity, like a religious pamphlet in the form of prose, it’s not a convention I often follow since it conveys so little.
Take Jailbird, for instance. Or, for that matter, any of Vonnegut’s fourteen novels. Its plot concerns the fictitious Walter F. Starbuck, imprisoned for his part in the infamous Watergate scandal which not many are liable to remember unless he goes out of his way to remind them, and the eventful two days immediately following his release, which land him first in a position of power at RAMJAC, a fictional multinational conglomerate, and then back in prison when the part he played in the meteoric rise of him, and a few select others, comes to light. Compared to the plot of, say, Vonnegut’s own Slaughterhouse-Five, it’s not about to send anyone running to the nearest library to check it out.
As I’ve put forth numerous times in previous reviews, though, that is what distanced Vonnegut by light-years from his peers, his ability to make the magical of the mundane. Even the aforementionedSlaughterhouse-Five, his most arresting work plot- and style-wise, found itself stuck in neutral when adapted for film and robbed of Vonnegut’s as of yet unparalleled ability to say in one line what lesser authors would be hard-pressed to say in one page. Like is often said of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, George Roy Hill’s film nailed down the details, yet not the spirit, resulting in a lifeless recreation of one of history’s liveliest writers.
Would the simple inclusion of some of Vonnegut’s words, via narration, have brought it back from the dead? You won’t hear me argue that it would have. But would they have been enough to carry me till the end, stopping me from giving up near the halfway point out of boredom? In all likelihood, they would have, no differently than when I read Hocus Pocus and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. In neither case did I continue on account of the story he was telling; rather, he held my interest with the manner in which he told it. Admittedly, his prose in both, like the story, wasn’t up to his usual level of excellence, but there were more than enough glimpses of that Midas touch of his for that not to much matter.
Which brings me back to Jailbird, in my opinion one of his least ambitious works, speaking strictly in terms of its plot. Starbuck’s life is an intricate and beautifully woven tapestry, myriads of contrasting colors and patterns somehow coming together and coexisting wonderfully, but it could just as easily have been drab and uniform if written by anyone else. Without Vonnegut pointing out the startling ironies that litter and, arguably, define Jailbird, what you would have is a comparatively simple story of a man imprisoned two separate times for peculiar reasons who happened to enjoy a two-day long stretch of luck in the time between them.
What you get instead, however, is a memoir of a man whose life is populated by characters you come to know almost as intimately, if not in some cases more intimately than, that man himself. Not unlike Vonnegut, Starbuck is concerned with the minutest of details that highlight the interconnectedness of life, the ones that don’t regularly translate to film. We are all close enough to one another that, if we were to reach out, there’s no telling who all we might inadvertently affect, and to what extent. One such example of this is how Starbuck inadvertently made a hodgepodge of men and women he’d encountered in his newfound freedom all vice presidents of the aforementioned RAMJAC, all this merely by innocently attempting to reaffirm for one of the four loves of his life that people do still have it in them to be kind, a woman who would turn out to be the mysterious puppeteer behind said conglomerate.
While he’d only met each of them in passing, the effects they had upon one another were significant enough to change the fate of the world’s largest conglomerate. Jailbird is rich with these connections that, out of context, would seem inconsequential but, when viewed as part of the larger picture, prove themselves as the foundations upon which everything that follows is born. In other words, Jailbird may seem simple on the surface, but its inner workings are so intricate, using so many moving pieces, that it’s a wonder Vonnegut managed it without the whole thing falling apart.
Moreover, it speaks once more to Vonnegut’s ability as a storytelller, as well as why, when a coworker of mine asked what Jailbird was about, I found myself at a loss, realizing that no words can describe Vonnegut or his work because all becomes clear only when you read him yourself. In short, whether or not my brief synopsis has you interested or not, I recommend you read Jailbird. And, for that matter, all of the late Kurt Vonnegut’s work. There are too few readers of his work in this world. I know, because not a single one of my coworkers has so much as heard of him, nor even his two most well-known works, “Harrison Bergeron” and Slaughterhouse-Five, a fact somehow more depressing than the knowledge that, with Jailbird finished, there are no more novels of his left for me to read. At least I still have his various collections, though I doubt they’ll last me long.
Travis Smith’s blog, containing this review, as well as others, photography, and more, can be found here.