Many see in Kurt Vonnegut a menace to society. Since the late 1960’s, parents’ groups and school boards in several states have launched drives to keep Slaughterhouse Five and other Vonnegut novels out of libraries and off syllabi.

Other observers regard Kurt Vonnegut as a writer of consistent intelligence and integrity—a titan of his age. For every Vonnegut hater there are probably five avid Vonnegut fans, perhaps most of whom are high school and college students who also believe that Star Trek is high art and that Henry James was a trumpet player who led his own big band back in the 40’s. These devotees will tell you, quite earnestly, that Vonnegut is a certified Deep Thinker and that several of his books—including Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five—are among the most important of our time.

Vonnegut is a religious skeptic; his political views—such as they are—veer left. He is certainly liberal with the sort of snide cracks and scatological jokes that one associates with boys of 13. But he is not as sinister as his most severe critics contend. In essays and interviews, Vonnegut has spoken with pride of the Purple Heart he earned during World War II; of his successful rearing of six children and his own upbringing in a large family with firm Midwestern roots; of the fact that “I have earned whatever I own by hard work.” In the main, Vonnegut’s novels call for nothing worse than the spread of neighborly goodwill and an end to the worship of machinery; his satirical jabs are sometimes right on the mark. Consider, for example, his 1968 essay “Yes, We Have No Nirvanas”—a funny, incisive expose of the then very trendy Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Of course, Vonnegut’s disciples overrate him greatly; he is not a modern-day Mark Twain. Slaughterhouse Five might endure, but in the year 2010 Vonnegut’s other novels will probably be considered no better known than Carl Van Vechten’s are today. Indeed, Vonnegut’s novels have become progressively less readable: such works as Slapstick (1976) and Deadeye Dick (1982) exhibit the sort of sloppy predictability that is common among writers who recognize that even their most trivial scribblings will be quickly consumed by a constituency of largely uncritical fans.

Galápagos, Vonnegut’s most recent novel, contains a couple of amusing scenes and some clever verbal constructions. James Wait, a principal character, is a con man with skin the color of “the crust on a pie in a cheap cafeteria.” In Guayaquil, Ecuador, he stays at a hotel with “the proportions and mood of a glassfront bookcase, high and wide and shallow.”

Much of the novel is set in Guayaquil and on the Galápagos Islands made famous by Darwin; down where it is “hotter than the hinges of hell.” But on the whole, Galápagos is a dog’s dinner of precious tricks and comic-strip philosophizing. Essentially Vonnegut argues that human beings have made a mess of the world because—through an evolutionary quirk—we wound up with brains too large to serve any truly useful purpose; that we’d all be far better off if we had flippers and fins and spent our days flopping around the seashore with the walruses and the seals. Irritating, too, is the condescending and rather cloying narrative voice that Vonnegut once again employs. In Galápagos, Vonnegut often sounds a bit too much like Miss Frances sing-songing her way through a science lesson at the Ding Dong School. Listen to this description of the “flightless cormorant”:

This bird was black and appeared to be the size of a large duck, but it had a neck as long and as supple as a snake. The queerest thing about it, though, was that it seemed to have no wings, which was almost the truth. This sort of bird was endemic to the Galápagos Islands, meaning that it was found there and nowhere else on the planet. Its wings were tiny and folded flat against its body, in order that it might swim as fast and as deep as a fish could.

In the early 70’s, when he was at the peak of his popularity, Vonnegut announced that he would write no more novels. After reading—or trying to read—Galápagos, many will be sorry that he reneged on his promise.


[Galápagos, by Kurt Vonnegut (New York: Delacorte) $16.95]