Item. The short story is the fabulous invalid of American letters. Item. According to an Authors Guild survey, only 39 percent of all working authors support themselves exclusively through writing-related work.
Those two propositions are connected. Many of the best American writers of the 20th century—Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut—subsidized their literary careers by writing for high-paying mass-market “slicks” like The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Liberty, and This Week. Although writing for the slicks, with their middle-class taboos, could corrupt a talent, it allowed these authors to support themselves while gestating and writing the novels that earned them a place in the American literary canon.
Television has pretty much usurped the short story’s entertainment role in our culture; the golden age of the mass-circulation magazine is behind us. In a reminder of that age, the adventurous Seven Stories Press has issued a 911-page doorstop of a book containing every published story and the best of the unpublished ones, slick or unslick, that Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote—97 in all. His earnings from them helped him to write the novels for which he is best known: The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night, Player Piano.
This volume is obviously a work of love. It was edited by two Vonnegut devotees: Jerome Klinkowitz, an academic who wrote a critical study of him, and Dan Wakefield, a novelist and magazinist, who hails from Vonnegut’s hometown of Indianapolis. Dividing the labor, they have organized the stories into categories (“War,” “Women,” “Science,” “Romance,” etc.) and written illuminating headnotes, as well as informative introductions.
The stories, like the sample below (published here for the first time anywhere) are entertaining, witty, sad, ironic, and served up in Vonnegut’s vernacular style, which to me sounds like Indianapolis talking. I doubt we shall ever see his like again.
Although consistently focused on what its founding prospectus called “legal, economical, and constitutional questions,” The Nation has always kept one eye on the world of fiction. Beginning with its first issue, published on July 6, 1865, no less than Henry James reviewed the latest novels; in 1868, the writer John William De Forest coined the phrase “the Great American Novel” in its pages; and, a half-century later, a college instructor named Raymond Weaver tried to restore the neglected reputation of a 19th-century writer, whose long-forgotten book about a whale hunt, he boldly suggested, was a masterpiece.
The magazine has also regularly published essays, reviews, and miscellaneous salvos by leading literary lights. Thomas Mann, self-exiled from his native Germany, commented on the perilous world situation in the 1930s. John Steinbeck wrote about the flow of migrants to California years before he published The Grapes of Wrath. Jean-Paul Sartre, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, E.L. Doctorow, Gore Vidal, and innumerable other novelists have all favored Nation readers with commentaries on current affairs in politics and culture.
Yet fiction itself has very nearly been absent from The Nation. Perhaps the injustices and the cruelties of this world have seemed too pressing to give up space for imagined others. If this has indeed been the reason for the exclusion, these are apt times to rethink it: “The world,” as Wordsworth famously noted, “is too much with us,” and in the era of Trump, we seem all the more badly in need of the yield that fiction writers reap: bold visions of what might have been, and of what might still be.
* * *
“De mortuis nil nisi bonum!” said the man on the bar stool next to mine. It was nearly closing time, the bartender had excused himself momentarily, and we were alone. We had been sitting side by side for nearly two hours without speaking. I had studied his reflection in the blue mirror behind the bar now and then, but I hadn’t looked into his eyes before he spoke—and what I saw there troubled me. He had the figure and features of an athletic youngster, not yet thirty, but his eyes—his eyes were those of a sick, baffled old man, a King Lear. “Say nothing but good about the dead!” he translated after a baleful silence.
“I know,” I said, “and I do.”
He seemed satisfied; so satisfied, in fact, as to lose interest in me altogether. He addressed himself to his own reflection, with gestures. “They don’t make men like Omar Zeitgeist anymore,” he said. “And where is he now? Where is the greatest mind of our time, of all time?” At this point, he burst into uncontrollable laughter, so full of irony as to almost clank.
I left a quarter tip beneath my half-filled glass, and moved toward the exit. He caught me roughly by the shoulder. “Omar Zeitgeist was a German, the only man on earth with the know-how of the cosmic bomb,” he whispered. “I was his bodyguard.”
“Cosmic bomb like the H-bomb?” I ventured.
“The cosmic bomb is to the H-bomb what an earthquake is to hiccups,” he said acidly. “Works on the same principle as what holds the universe together, only backwards.”
“Bully for it,” I said.
“Zeitgeist had no laboratory, worked out everything in his head.” My informant tapped his temple significantly and made clucking noises. “Our counterspies knew that he was very close to solving the riddle of the cosmic bomb when the war ended. No twig was left unbent in the search for him that followed Germany’s surrender. Several full regiments of men from good families were assigned to the sole task of finding Zeitgeist. Not a few of these searchers were found floating facedown in the Rhine, the Rhône, the Elbe, the Ruhr, the Aller, the Altmühl, the Unstrut, and other waterways, with bullets in their heads. They were not alone in their quest.”
“You already know about this?” he asked in surprise.
“Just a lucky guess.”
“As I was saying,” he continued irritably, “in the country between the Yapura and the Putumayo Rivers is a no-man’s-land once claimed by both Colombia and Peru. Colombia won, if you can call getting the country between the Yapura and Putumayo Rivers winning anything. When I say no-man’s-land, I mean to say that no Colombian or Peruvian ever wants to go there, and that the Witotos are not—in the civilized sense of the word—men. The Witotos live naked and in chronic fear of their neighbors, and are abominably omnivorous. How abominably omnivorous I shall presently relate.” He tossed down the remainder of his drink. “They eat manios, maize, yams, peanuts, peppers, plantains, pineapples, deer, tapirs, peccaries, sloths, bears, monkeys, and—” His voice caught. He lapsed into a moody silence that lasted for perhaps ten minutes.
“Omar Zeitgeist—you were going to tell me what happened to him,” I prodded.
“I’m coming to that,” he said peevishly. “He was found in Wiesbaden, in an abandoned Luftschutzraum.”
“Beg your pardon?”
He looked at me sympathetically. “Why, what did you do?”
“Nothing,” I said in confusion. “I just didn’t know what a Luftschutzraum was.”
“No offense,” he said, extending his hand. “It was decided that Zeitgeist should be spirited away to an area free of outside pressures and communists, where he might work out the final details of the cosmic bomb. As far as was known, there were no communist spies between the Yapura and Putumayo Rivers.” He smiled sadly. “All that the Colombians said was, ‘Watch out for them Peruvians,’ and all the Peruvians said was, ‘Watch out for them Colombians.’ Nobody said boo about the Witotos, and nobody knew if it would stop raining when Omar Zeitgeist and I got there. If they had, we might now have the cosmic bomb.”
“Perhaps we’re too spoiled as it is,” I suggested.
He closed his eyes and sighed. “Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are ‘It might have been.’” He hammered on the bar with his fists. “He was so brilliant, he didn’t even notice he’d been spirited across the Atlantic and stuck away in a jungle hut. He thought he was still in an abandoned Luftschutzraum, that Germany was a democracy, and that von Hindenburg was president. Zeitgeist needed no laboratory, no assistants. He had only to think, while I guarded his body. There we were, just the two of us, hemmed in by tropical rain forest and Witotos. He had but one more problem to solve before the cosmic bomb would be ready for humanity. It was that close!”
“But no cigar, in a manner of speaking?” I said.
“No cigar—precisely.” He wept unashamedly, then scowled. “The Witotos are ignorant and savage. How ignorant and savage I can perhaps make clear by telling you that they believe rain is caused by a little white elf-like creature. They call this creature ‘Dilbo,’ and believe that he lives hidden in the jungle. They believe that if they can catch and eat Dilbo and make a tom-tom out of his cranium, they can have rain anytime they want it just by beating on Dilbo’s head. They know nothing of dry ice and silver iodide rain-making techniques.” He bit his lip. “More’s the pity.
“At any rate, there we were, just the two of us, and one more problem to be solved. Suddenly, one night, Zeitgeist jumped to his feet and rushed into the jungle before I could stop him, shouting, ‘Eureka! Eureka! Eureka!,’ which is Greek for ‘I have found it! I have found it! I have found it!’” The man brushed away his tears and smiled bravely. “It was a triumphant moment. He was probably the first white man ever to shout Greek between the Putumayo and Yapura Rivers.” He frowned. “If only it hadn’t happened in a dry spell! If only the manios crop hadn’t been withering and the peccaries moving south to new waterholes! The drought, worse luck, had made the Witotos skittish and testy.
“I was beside myself, at the end of my rope—you can imagine. For hours I combed the dark jungle, calling his name. Fruitless. Finally, as the rays of the rising sun struck the peaks of the Andes to the west, I resolved to enlist the aid of the Witotos.” Here, my informant closed his eyes, as though he were concentrating every bit of his attention on his memory, on the terrible moments he was reliving.
“The Witotos have an effective telegraph system in the form of huge drums, which can be heard for miles,” he continued, struggling to keep his voice even. “I was used to their infernal thumping, night and day, and so didn’t take much notice of the din that grew louder as I approached the native village. It wasn’t until I was almost through the gates that I realized there was a new quality in the sound of the village drum. It wasn’t the same drum. It sounded unlike any drum I had ever heard before—like a man beating on an empty tank car with a ball-peen hammer.” He grasped my arm and squeezed it until it hurt. “I suddenly knew that only one thing could make that unearthly clamor. The thirsty Witotos had found Dilbo!”
“Not—?” I began.
“Zeitgeist,” gasped the man. “The father of the cosmic bomb was kaput, gone, fini—to say the least, the very least, dead. ‘Clunk, clunk, clunk’ went the Witotos’ brand-new tom-tom. As a bodyguard, I was through.”
He whipped out a revolver, and fired six shots into the jukebox, which turned a blinding cherry red and died.
“Did it rain?” I asked, after a respectful silence.
“It did,” said my informant gravely, “but not as much as the Witotos had hoped for.”