By Kurt Vonnegut
New York: A Seymour Book, 1982
ISBN # 0-440-11765-8
240 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2010

Rudy Waltz was born in 1932 in Midland City, Ohio, a place of no consequence, filled with people of little or no consequence. At just age 12, in 1944, he is cleaning one of his father’s favorite rifles and just fires it at random from the cupola of their house. He doesn’t know why he does it, he just does. He aims at nothing.

He kills a pregnant woman he had never met who lived 8 blocks away, killing not only her but the fetus in her womb. He is a double murdered and becomes known as Dead-Eye Dick.

Rudy takes on enormous guilt for what follows, which includes the losing of the family fortune, the imprisonment of his father for criminal negligence, to say nothing of the death of the two people he’s killed.

But guilt at the accidental murders isn’t quite the whole story. Rudy is, indeed, as he learns and tells us, a neuter – a relatively neutral human, sexually and personally interested in neither men nor women, nor ideas or abstract values. He just exists.

The story itself, which primarily centers around that accidental shooting and what follows from it, is told by Rudy while sitting in the Grand Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

It was actually this Haitian connection (which amounts to almost nothing in the novel) which drew me to read this book. I’ve been to Haiti more than 50 times, stayed at the famous Oloffson (a genuine hotel and famous landmark) and am personally acquainted with the current owner, Richard Morse, and have had personal contact with Sue Seitz who owned the hotel when Vonnegut first went there. In the novel Rudy and his brother have purchased the hotel from Al and Sue Seitz.

For both Rudy and brother Felix the hotel and Haiti are just escapes; escapes from their broken lives, escapes from the meaningless of either Midland City, Ohio, or even from Felix’s New York City. It is an escape from their failed lives, and perhaps from the failure of human beings themselves.

In the Forward, author Kurt Vonnegut tells us there are three main symbols in this novel:

First, an empty very fancy art center in Midland City, Ohio. He tells us “This is my head as my sixtieth birthday beckons me.” (1932-1982)

The second is, of all things, a neutron bomb, which comes from we know not where (but suspect the U.S. government just randomly choosing Midland City to test out the weapon) and wipes out all the people, but doesn’t harm any of the buildings or material goods.

Vonnegut tells us that “the neutron bomb are the many people in Indianapolis who disappeared for him when he left the city. Indianapolis is there but the people are gone.”

Thirdly Haiti is the symbol of New York City where Vonnegut (not Rudy Waltz) lives. While those may be the primary symbols, I think the main concept is of “the neuter.” This is a way to be in the world. It is to live without passion, without sexual drive toward either men or women, nor anything else. It is to be a relatively empty vessel, not just living in a world without meaning, but refusing, at the same time, to give it meaning by your own acts and decisions.

The concept of the neuter carries over into the non-story. There just is no significant story. Yes, Rudy kills the woman and her fetus and that has an enormous impact on his life and that of his parents, but the story isn’t about that. It’s about life having no point, no anchor, it is this vague “neuter.”

The story of the Celia Hildreth Hoover illustrates this point. Perhaps it is best described as the non-story of Celia Hildreth Hoover. She was a classmate of his brother in high school, from a poor family, but beautiful, and because she was beautiful, desired by many fellows, Felix takes her to the senior prom, but she wants nothing to do with him or it, and it goes badly. He ditches her.

But we follow the life of Celia in which she tries to dismiss her beauty and find something else meaningful in life. It doesn’t work. She seems to be her beauty and while she may dismiss it and despise it, others can’t and won’t. She ends up a very unbeautiful druggie and eventually takes her own life with by drinking Drano.

Late in the novel, at Celia’s funeral Rudy seems to finally bare his point of view, his vision of the universe:

I daydreamed at Celia’s funeral. There was no reason to expect that anything truly exciting or consoling would be said. Not even the minister, the Reverend Charles Harrell, believed in heaven or hell. Not even the minister thought that every life had a meaning, and that every death could startle us into learning something important, and so on. The corpse was a mediocrity who had broken down after a while. The mourners were mediocrities who would break down after a while.

The city itself was breaking down. Its center was already dead. Everybody shopped at the outlying malls. Heavy industry had gone bust. People were moving away. The planet itself was breaking down. It was going to blow itself up sooner or later anyway, if it didn’t poison itself first. In a manner of speaking, it was already eating Drano.

There in the back of the church, I daydreamed a theory of what life was all about. I told myself that Mother and Felix and the Reverend Harrell and Dwayne Hoover and so on were cells in what was supposed to be one great big animal. There was no reason to take us seriously as individuals. Celia in her casket there, all shot through with Drano and amphetamine, might have been a dead cell sloughed off by a pancreas the size of the Milky Way.

The novel is a tour-de-force of a weird combination of humor, some of it nearly slapstick, and a dreary very sad view of life.

There is one sort of concept on its own – the “peephole,” which I really loved. Rudy always substitutes the world “peephole” for life or birth or existence. One does not have a life or birth or existence, one has a peephole into time. This is a little tiny moment, and we do with it what we choose. I simply loved that notion. The Existentialists should have stolen the concept, wrapped it up in a fancy tuxedo of “philosophy” and made it a central cornerstone of Existentialism.

The peephole harks back to the concept of the neuter as well.

The novel is brilliant. It entertains, puzzles, outrages, titillates, challenges and delights. I think I wouldn’t much like Rudy and wouldn’t be able to stand his brother Felix, nonetheless I am deeply challenged by how Rudy thinks about the world.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett