A Man Without a Country: Essays from the GWB Years

A Man Without a Country Hardcover – Unabridged, September 6, 2005 by Kurt VonnegutA Man Without a Country by Kurt VonnegutA Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country collects essays about living in George W. Bush’s America. Published in 2005, these essays were written after America invaded Iraq in order to defeat terrorism, to find and neutralize weapons of mass destruction, and to spread freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East.

Briefly summarized, Vonnegut is critical of the state of America, which has been hijacked by psychopaths, and let’s not forget the state of the world, which has been destroyed by a century of fossil fuel emissions that produced nothing more than transportation. He’s not especially glad that so many nuclear weapons remain, either. He defends the arts, humanism, and, generally speaking, compassion and mercy. He regularly mentions Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, and the firebombing of Dresden. At one point, he defends Luddites. At another point he attacks anti-intellectualism.

Vonnegut is a celebrated American writer, and much of his reputation is founded on his unorthodox style. His writing, structure, and humor in Slaughterhouse-Five are startling, even today. Nevertheless, I found these essays predictable and familiar. A self-described humanist and pacifist, and a veteran of the Second World War, it’s not difficult to imagine what kind of mood Vonnegut, now into his 80s and still smoking, might be in. Written with heavy doses of despair, bitterness, and concern, Vonnegut’s essays read almost exactly like his novels, and they produce a surprisingly familiar response in the reader. The essays are short, disorganized and rambling, just like his novels.

It’s therefore not easy to recommend A Man Without a Country without qualifications. On the one hand, I’d not suggest that Vonnegut’s longtime readers read this essay collection. After all, if you’ve read the novels, there’s little new here. And yet, if you’ve read all his other works — or even just his major works — why not go the distance and read this book, too? Or how about this: these essays represent what it was like for anyone that opposed the invasion to live at the turn of the century. In other words, the essays might be worth reading for how they represent a perspective from their era as much as for their content. But those were dark years, and who has time and nerve enough to revisit them?

Personally, I found these essays most interesting for the ways they provide a window into what it’s like to be old — not just old, but very old (in your 80s old). It seems like Vonnegut never stopped being hip or popular amongst a certain type of young and irreverent reader, and yet he too grew into an old man, pissed off at the way people screwed up the planet and stopped thinking about the next generation. Further, although he remains popular, perhaps his novels could be considered failures since Vonnegut feels the need to restate his themes here. How depressing. His essays about giving up on people were my favorites in this collection.

So, should you read A Man Without a Country or not? To be honest, it might come down to this: the book and its essays are very short. If you like it, great. If not, you’ll be out an hour of time. For what it’s worth, it was *Vonnegut’s last publication.

Published in 2005. A Man Without a Country is Kurt Vonnegut’s hilariously funny and razor-sharp look at life (“If I die—God forbid—I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, ‘Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?”), art (“To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.”), politics (“I asked former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton what he thought of our great victory over Iraq and he said, ‘Mohammed Ali versus Mr. Rogers.’”), and the condition of the soul of America today (“What has happened to us?”). Based on short essays and speeches composed over the last five years and plentifully illustrated with artwork by the author throughout, A Man Without a Country gives us Vonnegut both speaking out with indignation and writing tenderly to his fellow Americans, sometimes joking, at other times hopeless, always searching.

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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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2 comments

  1. It does seem like it would have historical value.

    I’m reminded of a passage in the middle of Samuel R. Delany’s memoir THE MOTION OF LIGHT OF WATER, when he describes an orgy from the late 1970s and then, in the next paragraph, writes, “You’re probably wondering why I’m writing something like this, when we’re deep in the Reagan years.” (That is far from an exact quote.) Then he goes on to explain, his idea being to let young people growing up during the Reagan years know that it wasn’t always like this. Whether you agree with his philosophy or not, as a writer he had a clear sense of when he was publishing, and that the world would change again (and again). I wonder if Vonnegut had that same sense.

    • Ryan /

      If I were to guess, I’d say he did not have the same sense.

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