A cupola full of guns, it runneth over

The bullet drives smoothly into the swelling womb of a pregnant housewife eight blocks over, and Rudy Waltz, in this Mother’s Day double murder, finds himself Deadeye Dick for eternity.

Deadeye Dick 2Deadeye Dick · Kurt Vonnegut · 1982
Dial Press, 2010 · 271 pages, paperback

He didn’t mean to hit anyone; if he aimed at nothing, nothing is what he’d hit. What a sharpshooter! Twelve years old and Rudy Waltz has a lifetime of guilt ahead of him.

Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Deadeye Dick is page after page of dumb luck, and he’s very good at finding the tiniest ironies to drive his point. He’s refreshingly crass, and his dark humor certainly turns the corners of the mouth. His Rudy Waltz, aka Deadeye Dick, is a little gauche, a lot cynical and increasingly funny.

Rudy Waltz’s childhood home is a folly of a carriage house and an artist’s haven, his zany father’s dream with the Nazi flag out front (two starving artists, Otto and Adolf; this was before the war, mind). There are cobblestones on the floor and the living quarters are in the loft. There’s a glass cupola at the top and it’s a right sniper’s nest with a view of the city for miles…

It was a mistake, I didn’t mean to do it! Honest!

…It’s still your fault.

And that’s Rudy Waltz’s pain, Chernobyl-sized. High off the morning’s shooting (he was tops between himself, brother Felix and his father, and his father gave him the gun room key for it), Rudy takes an aimless shot that arcs over Midland City homes. It didn’t arc far enough, and that’s how Eloise Metzger and child came to an end (had their peepholes closed, as Vonnegut says).

The father shouldered the blame for the son who shouldered the Springfield (Rudy was only 12 at the time of his crime after all), and the husband of the woman he killed did later forgive him. So it’s someone punished and someone forgiven. Absolution on two counts but the guilt is still there. Rudy Waltz, 12 years old and already corrupted.

And that’s what growing up was like for Felix and me. We had no father when we got through.

As an adult, Rudy works night shift at Schramm’s drugstore. He goes home. He makes dinner for his parents. He writes a play, and it’s a play about a man from Midland City, his father’s own best man, the war hero John Fortune, and his death in Shangri-La. Funny, dying in Shangri-La.

Rudy finds, like his father found before him, that poetry has no life outside the printed word. The huge barn doors that made up one side of Rudy’s childhood home are, for the first time, swung open to admit the greatest beauty of them all: Rudy’s brother Felix’s prom date. And there’s Otto Waltz, his Austrian soldier’s uniform gleaming in the starlight, pronouncing poor, stupid Celia Hildreth Helen of Troy.

He’s a mite embarrassing, but he is an artist and his life is one big Guernica.

Manifestations of chronic intoxication with amphetamine include severe dermatosis, marked insomnia, irritability, hyperactivity, and personality changes…

What do we do when the very things meant to help us are the same things that can destroy us? What if, by some fluke, it’s you who’s left to take care of your parents and much too early?

…the most severe manifestation of chronic intoxication is psychosis, often indistinguishable from schizophrenia…

…want some?

All of it is a Shangri-La death all over again.

That the people who are supposed to be most honorable place themselves above the law means heads will roll (one of them quite literally in this novel, down the river and to the sea).

It’s much like the criminal who’s let off the hook by a legal technicality or a piece of questionable legislation that Congress passes via a procedural ruse – the stupidity of it! That things should have been different but they aren’t and some arcane triviality has gone and messed them all up and made them what they are now is pbfffftt! Frustration! But it’s accepted frustration and that means satire.

Radiation, decapitation, pneumonia, Drano…myriad ways to leave this world, so take your pick.

Set fire to your money, set fire to your bonds and your deeds (do I speak monetarily or otherwise?), drive the family business into the ground, take the blame for a crime you never did because destroying your life doesn’t require the force of a neutron bomb, though – zap! – that is a little quicker.

That is my principal objection to life, I think: It is too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes.

It might be a summation of Vonnegut’s work (such that anything could qualify his writing and worldview), but as a novel Deadeye Dick isn’t very good unless you’ve the patience to read the end of it. Nothing about the book, at first, is memorable; Vonnegut’s just shootin’ the breeze, and what he tells us, at this early point, is too out there to make us feel anything.

True, Vonnegut’s perceptive witticisms come through just in time to close out paragraphs threatening to wax too serious (are you sociable enough for a four-door car?), but it’s small consolation while we’re flopping around in the shallow end looking for some real Vonnegut fun.

Not until the end does any common feeling emerge and, dare we say it? Kurt Vonnegut starts to make sense. Life’s rough and then you die. Chuckle a little; you’ll be fine.

Deadeye Dick · Kurt Vonnegut · 1982
Dial Press, 2010 · 271 pages, paperback

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