FEATURE

Conduct Becoming

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: A Novel BY Kurt Vonnegut. Dial Press Trade Paperback. Paperback, 288 pages. $15.
Mother Night BY Kurt Vonnegut. Delta Trade Paperback. . .

SIFTING THROUGH the diffuse emotional backwash of Decision 2016's immediate aftermath, my mind, for whatever reason, kept wandering back to an admonition from Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: "God damn it, you've got to be kind." These many weeks later, I'm still stuck as to why I kept landing there, and wondering at whom the quote was directed. A quick reread of that 1965 novel reminded me of its eponymous sad-sack alcoholic millionaire's impulse to provide aid and comfort to America's exploited, bewildered, and thwarted—a description that could easily apply to some who voted for the winner, but also to many who cast their dreams with the defeated.

Close to what I needed, but not quite. I found more fruitful communion with an earlier Vonnegut novel, 1961's Mother Night, conceived as the last testament of Howard W. Campbell Jr., self-described as "an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination." As he awaits trial in Jerusalem for crimes against humanity, Campbell recalls how, as an apolitical, helplessly romantic American playwright living in Germany during the rising Nazi storm in the late 1930s, a fellow American, an undercover spy, recruits him into intelligence work. He delivers vital code benefiting the Allied cause during World War II through vile, racist, and demagogic radio broadcasts. Fifteen years after the war ends, having vanished into the anonymous streets of New York City, Campbell becomes an unwitting tool of white supremacists and a fall guy for the Soviets.

It's not a stretch to find, in the deadpan, serrated wit of Vonnegut's vision, reverberations of the despair the author himself experienced when he saw that the rout of Nazi Germany did not stop rapacious greed, race hatred, blind self-righteousness, and government duplicity; just as those of us who'd divined a glimmer of progress in Barack Obama's election as president were slammed back to reality by the triumph of Donald Trump and the concurrent license it seems to have given sundry haters and greed-heads. (One is reminded of that melancholy man in 1969's Slaughterhouse-Five who, when Vonnegut told him he was writing an antiwar book, replied, "Why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?" Wars, like racism, greed, and demagogues, are eternal and recurrent.)

Of course, Mother Night is most famous for what Vonnegut says is its moral ("the only story of mine whose moral I know," he wrote): "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." As we brace for an administration in which oligarchs and white supremacists will have as great a voice as they have ever had since slavery, I would spin Vonnegut's sage advice inside out and, Jeopardy-like, put it in the form of a question: In a context of inchoate rage, fear, hatred, and panic, who are you supposed to be and who are you meant to become?

Gene Seymour is an essayist and cultural critic who has previously written for Bookforum about Albert Murray, Ross Macdonald, James Brown, and Charles Beaumont.