Jailbird

Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, $9.95

Two characters dominate this shapely and —for Vonnegut —remarkably straightforward novel: its narrator, Walter F. Starbuck, a Harvard graduate with an unlucky career as a “public servant”; and Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a shopping-bag lady, who lives in a forgotten catacomb beneath Grand Central Station. Her mission—reminiscent
of an earlier Vonnegut scheme, in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater— is to restore the wealth of the largest conglomerate in the world, which she controls, to “its rightful owners, the American people.” Walter does what he can to help.
Most of the author’s familiar themes—kindness, pessimism, antimaterialism, and their antagonists—are present, but in surprisingly naturalistic garb. Vonnegut’s hero is shunted not between “alternate universes” but through mere chronological time; and the satirizing of American free enterprise and political folly over the past fifty years is more winsome than clownish. At the federal minimum security prison, where Walter serves time for his incidental part in Watergate, “Half the inmates, it seemed, were writing memoirs or spy novels or romans a clef ... so there was a lot of talk about book reviewing.”
By no means has Vonnegut let go of all his mannerisms —the habitual ironic expressions, the candid, ingratiating prologue—but the writing in Jailbird is immeasurably stronger, funnier, and more confident, without the artificial additives and grotesque self-parody that made his recent novels so distressful. Life, in Vonnegut’s eyes, is as chaotic as ever, “a thoughtless weather system,” but Jailbird emanates serene control.