Deadeye Dick

Deadeye Dick by Kurt VonnegutFull Title: Deadeye Dick: A Novel
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publisher: Grafton Books (1984)
Number of Pages: 224
How long it took me to read: 1.5 weeks
Where I bought this book: Gift from a friend
ISBN: 0-586-05852-4

Like a Moth to a Flame

For the past ten years, Kurt Vonnegut has been popping up in my life like some wandering oracle of writing, an issuer of wisdom whose cryptic one-liners have given me consistent cause to stop and reconsider my approach to the craft. Yet somehow I’ve never got round to reading his fiction, nor learning anything about his life. Slaughterhouse Five has long been on my list of must-reads, recommended by so many people (other writers in particular), that I’m beginning to suspect I’m the only person on the planet who hasn’t read it. But I won’t be shrugging off that lonely accolade anytime soon, as it is Deadeye Dick that will provide my first engagement with this most exonerated of storytellers. Appropriately enough, this has not come about through any deliberation, merely a chance spotting of the book squeezed within a heap upon a friend’s dresser. From there I transported it, by virtue of his generosity, to my own queue of future reading. So now, at last, I have an opportunity to experience the results of Vonnegut’s extensive literary know-how.

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Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “Think of that: My father could have strangled the worst monster of the century, or simply let him starve or freeze to death. But he became his bosom buddy instead. That is my principal objection to life, I think: it is too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes.” (p.17)

4. “I think I was about as happy as anybody else in Midland City, and maybe in the country, as I waited for all the lawsuits to come to a head. But there you have a problem in relativity again. I continued to be comforted by music of my own making, the scat singing, the brainless inward fusillades of ‘skeedee wahs’ and ‘bodey oh dohs’, and so on. I had a Blaupunkt FM-AM stereophonic radio in my Mercedes, but I hardly ever turned it on.” (p.210)

3. “She was ready to die at any time, she said, because what men and boys thought about her and tried to do to her made her so ashamed. One of the first things she was going to do when she got to heaven, she said, was to ask somebody what was written on her face and why it had been put there.” (pp.54-5)

2. “Felix didn’t get his first wife pregnant before he married her, but he put her through a windscreen. ‘I might as well have got her pregnant,’ he said the other night. ‘Putting her through a windshield came to very much the same sort of thing.” (p.120)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “…I wonder if it mattered much that it was I who was in the cage in the basement of the old courthouse so long ago. A curiously carved bone or stick, or a dried mud doll with straw hair would have served as well as I did, there on the bench, as long as the community believed, as Midland City believed of me, that it was a package of evil magic.” (p.82)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“Even before I begin reading the story proper, Vonnegut’s brief biography inside the cover creates an powerful mythos. Here is a US writer of German descent that survives a German POW camp in World War II and witnesses the bombing of Dresden. What kind of effect does that experience have on a person? What thoughts does it make them want to share with the rest of the world? Such an event must force a fusion of the personal with the political; the individual with the communal. It is impossible to imagine how it might scramble an individual’s perspective, and how they might go about descrambling it over the duration of their life and work.”

“What a start. I’ve never read a better description of life contained within such a sparse number of words. In three tiny paragraphs, Vonnegut captures all of its wonder and all of its pointlessness; the hellishness of being born into a world where countless billion human lives have already scored their marks, and of being forced to suffer the brutish directions of all those who still live. Somehow, within those 111 words, he also finds space to reveal the age, name and location of the narrator, as well as seasoning them all with a taste of the narrator’s apparent misanthropy. Only half a page in and already the impact of highest-calibre writing has torn a hole through my mind.”

“Vonnegut presents life as an entirely mechanical process, birth and death constantly referred to as ‘peepholes opening’ and ‘peepholes closing’. Both events occur with no more forethought or emotion than any other chemical reaction or physical law. They are insubstantial to the point of triviality, as is everything that occurs between them. For the narrator, nothing seems attributable to either progenitors or death-bringers. They too are simply doing what they do. The word ‘peephole’ delights, through its frequent repetition, in juvenility. Only a child might find solace in such a term—or perhaps an adult explaining to a child these twin taboos of birth and death, wary of opening an avenue for yet more questions. In truth, Vonnegut knows no answer will provide solace to such inquiring children, so why should the rest of us require, or be granted, any? Why not instead reduce the horrendously inextricable complexities of such processes to a word we can all understand and visualise? A peephole: we open and we close. There is little more to say. On the far side of either, their implications will not concern us. In the world of Deadeye Dick, Vonnegut makes sure to relegate the ‘miracle’ of life and the ‘grand tragedy’ of death to the basest position as early as possible. To me, this feels like a homecoming: a world I am already comfortably inhabiting.”

“After Vonnegut’s biography, the last reaction I’d expect his storytelling to evoke is explosive laughter. But this has been its effect, more than once, during these early chapters. He paints such chaotic jesters, particularly the narrator’s father: fallible, even quixotic, but determined to live his idiosyncrasies to their fullest. When faced with life-threatening torment, humour can be a critical faculty to grab on to, and I imagine Vonnegut must have discovered this when trapped within the POW camp. Deadeye Dick is smothered with humour: irony, Schadenfreude, satire, even farce. But sudden injections of sobriety, tiny glimpses of a war-ravaged world, shame me for my hyena-like mirth and raise questions about the rights of these characters to frolic quite so freely within it.

“Can people ever be justified in enjoying their personal madness amidst the turmoil of widespread suffering? Well, fear not, for Vonnegut understands that suffering comes to us all. Each passing moment brings it another step closer, and there is nothing more his jesters can do to prevent it than we can ourselves. It is in their moments of personal torment, when the consequences of actions or of pure dumb luck are clear and inescapable, that he exposes all our helplessness by crippling us again with laughter. And once he has reduced us to this most vulnerable of states, Vonnegut kicks us with another viciously deadpan revelation. For all his cruelty, though, we emerge the stronger—more alert to and prepared for the ridiculous horrors our own lives might bring, and more respectful of the effect we have on others.”

“Each of Vonnegut’s characters suffers bombed ambitions, the path they would like to live blocked off by the impact of violence, forcing them down another route entirely. This violence is not necessarily intentional, or even physical. Usually, the intentions of the characters are demolished along with the rest of their emotional territory, reduced to the rubble of automatic response rather than deliberate forethought. Actions are taken, events proceed, lives grow bent out of shape. Careers, talents, skills, desires—all are cut short of their potential. Although nobody seems culpable for this violence, it is the perception of culpability and the larger community’s attempts to brand others with it that escalates the violence further. In comparison, the family of jesters seem almost harmless, with more right to their levity, perhaps, than those who meet violence with dangerous gravity.”

“There can’t be a lot of fiction themed around the senselessness of violence that also contains mouth-watering recipes for food (rather than, say, chemical weapons). Tomorrow, inspired by one of these recipes and the need to use up a jar of jam, I’m going to try my hand at making a Linzer Torte for the first time. For all his alleged nihilism, Vonnegut’s work is equally life affirming. Little could suggest this more than inspiring the desire to keep eating. To believe life has no intrinsic meaning does not imply it is difficult to enjoy, nor to respect. In this, though, I might be imposing my own prerogative over that of the writer. The narrator’s obsession with cooking, his memory of recipes presiding over that of seemingly more significant events, is as much a self-inflicted penance as it is a pleasurable activity. He has brought shame upon his family and cooking is the one means he has to compensate for it, to ensure that they survive it. In some ways the insertion of these recipes only serves to emphasise the consequences of the surrounding violence, but I make no excuses for overlooking this in favour of my own extremely healthy appetite.”

“There is a sense here that only through our interactions do we become who we are, that reputation not only outstrips the ‘true’ self, but also eventually informs it. Rudi believes himself to be a murderer because others always have, and it is this belief that does all the damage: to believe in an idea is to carry a loaded weapon. From his narrative, with its frank, wry and worldly-wise commentary on both historic events and personal associations, Rudi comes across as a very different person to the quiet, dissociated creature described by the other characters. Some way through the book, Genevieve expresses more of his personality and behaviour than his own narration ever does:

” ‘And your poor brother—no wonder he is the way he is. I thought that he had been born defective, that the umbilical cord had strangled him or something.’ ” (p.136)

“This comes as a surprise but only, I realise, because I had not picked up on enough of the clues. It was a gap in my reading—possibly one the writer lured me into—rather than a gap in the writing itself. The clues were there, but I’d allowed the apparent confidence of the narration to fool me. This serves to remind me that in first-person narrative we experience the storyteller at the end of their tale. They have lived through events that we have yet to learn about, and come out the other side, imbued with whatever effects these events have had on them. To serve the narrative, it is vital that any narrator be capable of and willing to communicate their ideas. This must preclude certain stories from ever being told in first person perspective, and is certainly an important notion to bear in mind during the planning process of a work. Would my own narrators really choose to share their histories with someone else? Would they want to? Would they be able to? And if they would, how might I use the eventual destination of these narrators to shape their stories for my readers? This, perhaps, suggests that the ending is the most important element to decide upon before commencing to write, as it informs every other decision I will make throughout a tale.”

“For a satirist, Vonnegut creates a very convincing illusion of reality, unlike Heller in Catch 22, or Palahniuk in Fight Club, whose characters, events and settings come across as too exaggerated, too caricatured, to be anything but a deliberately skewed vision of the world. While the story of Deadeye Dick unfolds in largely chronological order, the narrator draws from a reservoir of first and second-hand memories, channelling correlations between events and behaviours to either affirm or question the psychology of relatives and acquaintances. If I sat down at a bar table to be regaled by a stranger’s life story then this is precisely how I would imagine it unfolding (assuming they could keep me quiet for the duration)—though not likely with so much craft. Deadeye Dick is a lesson in connectivity, of how to get all the elements of a tale—characters, tone, imagery, language, setting, dialogue, and even at certain points, playscript—to agree and point as one towards their overarching message.

“It is no surprise that Vonnegut has a reputation for providing poignant advice to other writers. Some might argue that it is easier to point to your meaning when your meaning is that there is no meaning—it implies the writer has free reign to create whatever chaos they like—but in Deadeye Dick this is far from the case. The lives of the characters might appear random, coincidental, but the writing itself is nothing less than tuned, aimed and fired with utmost precision.”

“Having finished Deadeye Dick, and taken a habitual glance at the back cover to reappraise the blurb, I’m confused by one quote from the New York Times that proclaims the book as ‘A riot of randomness—the grand old Vonnegutian comedy of causelessness.’ To my mind, there is clearly cause and effect at work throughout the tale—it simply would not function without it. It is the very presence of a perceived accountability that drives its message home—too much accountability, in fact, for sanity’s sake. There is no random element here. It is more a ‘comedy of coincidence’ than of causelessness, and as close as a piece of fiction has ever come to holding a mirror up to my internal experience of life, with all its chance factors and unlikely happenstances uniquely intact. I have since begun reading Michael Moorcock’s The Vengeance of Rome, where I came upon the line:

“Those of us who move about the world and are active in its business know how coincidences occur in life far more than in fiction.” (p.27)

“This, for me, sums up Vonnegut’s attitude towards literature—at least, in Deadeye Dick. He is prepared to take us to a place that other writers would not dare; a place that does not fit public expectation, free from artificial formulae that avoid unlikely occurrences. Very few—and certainly not enough—writers have considered it possible to represent real life with such honest regard for its remarkable implausibility. Vonnegut’s writing travels as life does, and as all writing should: unexpectedly, irreverently and brimming with meaning that ultimately leads nowhere but where we allow it to take us. Then it ends.”

Gareth Long

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