Nine Down

I finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Jailbird last night.

Grade: A

Jailbird is a tough read. It has a slow beginning and it requires some knowledge of American history, particularly the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. Everyone in Vonnegut’s generation would have known those names. And I suppose that teenagers paying attention in history class would know. Me, I recognized the names but could not say why. Fortunately, Vonnegut eventually provides the patient reader with sufficient information about the two laborers whose executions were so controversial.

The other holes in my knowledge of history are just as easily remedied. That’s what encyclopedias are for. But it’s impossible to have the same perspective as one who lived through the 50 years of changing public opinion between 1927 (the year Sacco and Vanzetti were executed) and 1977 (the year in which the main character is released from jail after serving time for a part in Watergate). Lacking that perspective, I’m not sure what I was supposed to get out of this book, but as I sit here thinking of what to say, it strikes me that one way to read it is as a chronicle of changing opinion.

If you can make it through all the seriousness and historical references, the reward is a more typical Vonnegut story with zany characters swept up by strange events. The main character is a Harvard-educated man whose foolish idealism is always getting him in trouble. Along the way, he meets up with various interesting people, including a bag lady with an amazing secret.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Jailbird. Because it demanded more from me and took longer to read, some of its characters and events were more firmly impressed on my memory than is usual. I felt the urge to study it in the old English-major way and that does not happen often, so I gave it an “A.”

That’s nine down and five to go. Next up is Deadeye Dick, but having finally caught up in the marathon, I am going to take a few weeks off and read something else. I will run the remainder of the marathon next year.

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