The Short Version: A ‘collage’, as the man himself puts it, of essays and speeches and thoughts and even a short story and a play – all of which add up to a charmingly odd portrait of a literary life.
The Review: There is something about Kurt Vonnegut that runs the risk of coming off as too self-assured, almost cocky, sometimes. It is, perhaps, only his relentlessly Midwestern sense of self-deprecation that saves him – but I have to admit that this was the first time I wondered if the man might be a little too pompous at times, a little too self-aware of his own abilities even as he writes them off with a shrug.
It starts with his sassy opening to this book, where he first describes this book as a bow-wow grand slam, a masterpiece, something entirely new… and then, within a page, he’s scratching the back of his neck and saying that that’s not really true, that he finds it raw and rather a mess. This paradox, the self-trumpeting bravado mixed with the honest undercutting, is one of the things that makes Vonnegut such an important writer, I think: it makes him altogether human, just like all of us.
And make no mistake: this collection is rather a mess, as many collages are. There seems to be little reason to’ve included, for example, a rather silly and honestly quite bad treatment for a musical version of “Jekyll and Hyde” other than that Vonnegut felt like sharing it, warts and all. He also includes things that not written by him but by some of his ancestors, as well as a few poems and pieces by friends. This messiness makes for frustrating reading at times but, if you are able to space the thing out and read each chapter as its own sort of mini-essay-collection, I find that it provides some wonderful insights into not just the mind of a great writer but into the world that he has placed himself in.
There are several moments that make the collection entirely worthwhile, of course. There’s Vonnegut’s famous Paris Review interview with himself as well as several commencement speeches that see Vonnegut grappling with the same themes over and over, trying to move towards a better understanding of humanity right there in public. Most intriguingly, for me, were Vonnegut’s attempts to understand or come to terms with religion and its role in modern society. This theme is, perhaps, highlighted by the fact that the collection is called Palm Sunday and that name is derived from a sermon that Vonnegut delivered at St. Clement’s Church (“the actor’s church” in midtown Manhattan) on the subject of that Biblical story and day. Vonnegut has never had much time for religion, whether that term refers to a great bearded fellow in the sky or something less-widely-understood to be religion but a kind of religion nonetheless, like politics or a code of conduct and ethics amongst our fellow man – and here, several times, he exclaims that we need to be better to one another, now. He talks, quite sadly (even as we might chuckle), about the fact that he’s the only person to’ve had anything good come out of the firebombing of Dresden. He considers his son, who struggled with mental health for years, and even sends barbs directly into a gathering of Mental Health Professionals in one of the speeches collected here. He is struggling with a world that is not kind, is not welcoming, is not good… but he sees the possibility for it, because he himself is an example of someone who has tried (when he can) to be good… or at least aware of when he has failed.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. The man himself, in that famous rating of his books found near the end of this one, gives this book a C and I’d have to say that that’s about correct. There are moments of excellence here, essays and speeches (and that Paris Review interview) that shed wonderful light on Vonnegut-the-man as well as on some of his writing and his writing process. But ultimately, it is a collection for those who’ve already bought into Vonnegut’s greatness – and he seems to know that. He knows that he can be a little bombastic and not turn off his readers, because they are his readers. More than anything, there are moments that feel a little tired. But the collage effect is a fascinating one because, in the end, we do have a sense of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. as compiled by various pieces of his life instead of attempting one holistic examination. It feels, ultimately, more fitting than any traditional biography could.