My rating: 2 of 5 stars
"[...] the things the National Rifle Association still says about how natural and beautiful it is for Americans to have love affairs with guns."
Just a few days ago I reviewed the outstanding Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors. I find it astonishing that his Deadeye Dick (1982), a seemingly similar novel, with similar motifs and narrative form, is so unremarkable. I almost love the former and I really don't like the latter at all. While Bluebeard is profound, Deadeye Dick is just occasionally amusing. The word "meh" seems to have been created for books like this one.
The novel is sort of an autobiography by one Rudy Waltz. He is 50 years old now and recounts his childhood and youth in Midland City - the archetypal middle-America town - in the archetypal middle-America state of Ohio. Rudy's youth was not typical at all, though: he and his brother were conceived in Austria,
"in a von Furstenberg bed, with a coat of arms on the headboard, and with 'The Minorite Church of Vienna' by Adolf Hitler, on the wall over that."Rudy's father was enamored with Hitler's ideology and until World War II considered Hitler his friend.
But Hitler and Nazism are only incidental in the novel. We learn that Rudy had killed two people in Midland City. No, he is not in prison; he has not been punished by law and works as a pharmacist. But wait, there's more. At some point Mrs. Roosevelt - the wife of the 32nd President - visits Rudy's family and has a lunch of chitlins with them. Also early in the novel we learn that Midland City, Ohio, was the location of the nuclear blast, which killed one hundred thousand people but - since it was a neutron bomb - the houses, infrastructure, and personal things were not damaged at all. So we have a radioactive mantelpiece but also the dangers of amphetamine and brain cancer, and we have Rudy's brother who is the top executive of NBC. All these components could conceivably be combined to form a fascinating novel. Yet they sum up to an awkward and unfocused mess that does not make much sense, at least to me.
The motif of failure in life is closest to feel compelling: a failed painter, failed playwright and failed parents are essential components of the story, and since all of us fail in our lives in some way, at least this theme is highly realistic. The novel also carries a loud (yet too simplistic to be convincing) anti-gun message, but the bizarre plot saps all power from it.
The author attempts to enrich the non-linear but rather straightforward narration by the use of "playlets" written in the form of play scripts. I find this device a failure: the playlets do not blend with the text. Neither do the culinary recipes that are used as interludes, but at least the reader can try them out in practice, like the one for chitlins. Of all the unrelated threads in the novel I really like only one - the Celia Hildreth story: the vivid scene that portrays Rudy's brother's failure to get her to be his prom date is the highlight of the novel. I also like the last sentence of the novel and the author's private joke: a reference to Rabo Karabekian, the protagonist of Bluebeard. The greatness of that novel stands out even more when compared to the mediocre Deadeye Dick.
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