Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut (1968)

The Vonnegut Project has been proposed by contributor Emily Dufton.  In this series, we will each review an agreed upon set of novels by Kurt Vonnegut.  The first entry is Slaughterhouse-Five.  

JACK: I first (and last) read Slaughterhouse-Five as a high school junior in the Katherine Brush library in one sitting.  I just took it off the shelf and sat down in one of those comfortable chairs they had and devoured it in a few hours.  I remember thinking it was hilarious and not really a novel.  It was my introduction to Vonnegut and a gateway to all of his other work.  It was easy to read.  Vonnegut's style (which he had not yet seemed to have fully formed in S-F), consisting of a few whimsical, ironically detached observations, punctuated by a closing punchline, immediately influenced my own writing.

Now I read it and look at it in my Kurt Vonnegut compilation and see it is only 110 pages.  It took much, much longer to read it this time, but that's not to say I was bored.  I do not think it is quite as amazing as I thought it was before, but I am still going to add it to the Best Books list because it is a classic and really should be read by everybody.  

Briefly, the book is about Billy Pilgrim, who becomes "unstuck" in time, and travels between experiences in his life.  The enveloping narrative concerns his experience in the bombing of Dresden near the end of the World War II.  This portion of the novel may read as straight autobiography.  Vonnegut inserts himself as one of the other soldier characters on the scene.  At one point he shows up as another character in an outhouse, taking a massive dump and screaming about how he is shitting his brains out.  

He also makes appearances at the beginning and end of the novel, writing as himself and about the book.  The novel is third-person and the main character is indisputably Billy Pilgrim, but Vonnegut breaks in as the "I" at a few random points.  This is one of the few "postmodern" qualities of the novel.       

EMILY: I agree with Jack; when I reread S-F a few weeks ago, it wasn’t quite what I remembered it being the first time. Back then, I was 15 and easily wowed. I hardly even noticed the book’s lack of traditional narrative structure, and it certainly didn’t bother me as I inhaled Vonnegut’s comical, cynical view of life. After I read S-F, “so it goes” entered my lexicon, and for years it never left. It still seems to me a pretty good way to view the world: a kind of existentialism-lite, one that recognizes our responsibility in the world, but also acknowledges the world’s lack of responsibility to us, and how the universe does what it will, with or without our acceptance or permission.

S-F wasn’t the first Vonnegut book I read. That was, for good or ill (good, I think) Slapstick, which Vonnegut himself gave a D when he graded his novels in Palm Sunday. (A funny aside: when looking up those grades in Palm Sunday, I saw that I had previously marked the page twice, first with a bent corner of the page, and then with a certificate of direct deposit from Drexel University dated 4/22/05. I worked as an administrative assistant in their art department for a few months at the time, and I was paid $12 an hour. After taxes, every two weeks I received $651.08, and somehow I lived.) Anyway, Slapstick was my first foray into the world of Vonnegut, and though I haven’t reread it (and probably never will), I still love that book because it introduced me to Kurt, and that was one of the most influential meetings of my teenage years.

From there I read basically the rest of the Vonnegut canon. I had posters and signed books and CDs, and I saw him give a commencement address at Lehigh University in 2005 (the same year I was being paid $650 every two weeks). I couldn’t have a conversation without bringing Vonnegut up, sometimes even citing the specific page of a book when a friend’s stray comment ventured too close to his language. I thought I was just a super fan, but, in retrospect, I was probably obnoxious.

Either way, in the years that have passed since I stopped reading Vonnegut (which ended, I’m pretty sure around 2005 - that year again!), I’ve thought about him a lot, especially when he passed away in 2007. But I never returned to his work. It seemed sacrilege because I knew that it wouldn’t mean as much to me now as it did then, and because I had grown cynical about his work too. By the time he died, he was repeating himself. Any new publication recycled previous work. Even his commencement address was a compendium of earlier thoughts; sitting in the stands of Lehigh’s football stadium, I could annotate his speech - “He took that quip from Book A, this quip from Book B” - and it bothered me. Vonnegut was no slouch: the man published 14 novels, five books of nonfiction, three short story collections, and five plays in a career that stretched over a half century. So it bothered me that he was recycling things. Wasn’t his fertile mind still creating new material? I realized I was mad at him because Vonnegut had grown old.

But he wasn’t all that old when he wrote S-F, at least not old in my opinion. Born in 1922, he published S-F in 1969, when he was 47 and the time was ripe for antiwar diatribes. Age is a major theme of S-F. In the opening scene, when Mary, the wife of Vonnegut’s old war buddy Bernard O’Hare, pounds on the table and denounces the war because “you were all just babies then,” she gives Vonnegut his subtitle, and his mission: to show how children fight old men’s wars, and they always have, and they always will.

This didn’t affect me when I first read the book at 15. Instead, every character was older than me, and, being older than me, they existed in that vague world of adulthood that seemed relentlessly similar. A 20-year-old was the same as a 40-year-old who was the same as a 60-year-old. Billy Pilgrim was 21 when he was drafted into the Army in the book, and 21 seemed a lifetime away from 15. Edgar Derby, at 40, was ancient in my eyes. But now I’ve reread it at 34, not 15, far closer to Derby’s age than any other character’s, and with a kid who may get drafted someday, if America continues to fight wars. This time I felt stronger horror at the things Pilgrim had seen, and greater horror at Derby’s pathetic death. These characters could no longer be lumped together as ageless “adults”; instead, they were my contemporaries, my colleagues, and children far younger than me. That was the first time I saw the real horror that S-F paints over, broadly, with humor and science-fiction. The survivors can laugh now, because otherwise they will cry.

I was thinking of addressing other things - Pilgrim’s strange relationship with Montana Wildhack, for example, who shows up, becomes pregnant with Pilgrim’s child, and we never see her again. Does she also become unstuck in time, or is she with the Tralfamadorians still today? Where is the baby? More importantly, how is the baby? (These are the things that interest me now as a 34-year-old mom.) But there are no answers here. Characters come and go, listing away, never to be heard from again, like Billy when he ventures through time and space, his feet blue in the cold basement or marching through German terrain.

Because there are no answers, there’s not much to say about that. Nor is there much original to say about much of Vonnegut’s major oeuvre. S-F is a well-known book, often a banned book, one that gave Vonnegut his name, and because of that (and on the decade anniversary of his death), his work is being revisited all over the place. There’s a new collection of all of his short stories, which I will not buy because I still don’t like how he recycled his own work. But this project - re-reading Vonnegut with Jack - is important to me because Vonnegut is still important to me, and S-F is still important to me, even if it didn’t impress me much when I read it again. And they’re important because of what S-F and Vonnegut meant to me, and still mean.

I was listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross the other day. She was interviewing the author John Le Carre, the spy novelist and former MI-5 operative who has lived a most extraordinary life. At the age of five Le Carre’s mother disappeared, and he was raised by his father, whom he called a compulsive liar, a man who was in and out of jail and sold arms to the mob to support his family. Rather than shielding young Le Carre from his work, however, his father demanded that John cover for him to keep him out of jail.

Gross asked Le Carre a question that stuck with me. She assumed that, because of his father’s untruthfulness, he was hardly an ethical authority. “How did you develop a moral compass with a father who had none?” she asked.

Le Carre paused a moment and seemed to laugh. He said that it was kind of her to suggest that he had developed one at all.

But then he went on to say that he was 85 years old, and it “took time” to find his moral center. He had met a lot of people, Le Carre said, and not all of them were nice. “But I think I got better. And that’s all there is to it,” he said. It took a while for him to get steady after sudden writing success, but he did -- with no real parents, with no real guidance, with no real “moral compass” instilled at any age.

And it’s that idea that brought me back to the work of Kurt Vonnegut. Like Le Carre, I had to develop a moral compass on my own: my mother was an alcoholic who struggled with mental health problems and left the family when I was 14. My father is magnificent and did what he could. But the work of developing my moral compass, without any explicit guidance from parents or authority figures or religious leaders or other caring adults who were closely associated with my life, fell almost entirely on Vonnegut, who taught me how to view the world. I loved, and still love, his wizened cynicism, dusted with his omnipresent faith in the human race. I loved, and still love, his humorous turns that come at the end of a devastating story. I loved, and still love, how he’s not really a very good writer, but he is a very good philosopher and a hell of a good person. I loved, and still love, Kurt Vonnegut, for all his merits and flaws, because without him, I would still be without a moral compass, still lost in an ethical void. And so I still love S-F too, in spite of, and because of, all its foibles and charms.

JACK: Returning now, I first wanted to comment on Emily’s review and say no, she was not obnoxious with her super-fandom of Vonnegut.  Far from it.  Every time she referenced Vonnegut in conversation, it was appreciated.  Referencing Vonnegut was never unappreciated by me, perhaps, because I was definitely a mini-superfan.  I’ve missed a few of his major works (Jailbird, Player Piano, and Happy Birthday, Wanda June--and I cannot find the self-grades to those in my copy of Palm Sunday, nor a pay-stub from 2005), but I’ve read everything else listed in Timequake, his final novel.  I also missed Wampeters, Foma and Granfaloon, and Bagambo Snuff Box, but I do not think Emily would consider those essential.  I have little recollection of Fates Worse Than Death, but I believe I read it at some point and thought it was pretty alright.  Regardless, Emily’s point about Slapstick holding a special place in her heart because it opened her to the rest of his oeuvre is trenchant.  This is the same way I feel about Slaughterhouse-Five, except in my case, the vast majority of the American literary public would cite S-F as one of his few true masterpieces.  Few would put Slapstick in the same category.  Yet both of these books showcase his style in a way that acts like catnip for a certain type of reader.  

I think in both of our cases, there was a waterfall of Vonnegut novels we read shortly thereafter.  The ones I remember being very good were Mother Night, Deadeye Dick, Hocus Pocus, and Cat’s Cradle (my favorite).  Obviously Breakfast of Champions is another classic, but I felt it was sort of meaningless in a way that his other books didn’t seem to be (or “plotless”).  Welcome to the Monkey House has some of his best work, but it’s a short story collection, and while some of Vonnegut’s short fiction is utterly fantastic, he should be remembered most for his novels.  Many people consider The Sirens of Titan one of his masterpieces, but I did not read that until 2005, and it did not seem to hit me in the same way it did for others.  I remember thinking Bluebeard was pretty good (initially reading my friend Jay’s father’s copy from the basement of their cabin).  Timequake I felt was a fairly strong novel to end on.  He would go on to live and write for another 9 years or so, but as Emily pointed out, the quality of his work declined as he leaned on recycling previously unpublished (and published) material.  The new short story collection that I believe Emily referenced does feel to me, like a fair Vonnegut purchase (a nice Christmas gift idea perhaps…), but not for a person such as herself that actually owned the majority of his oeuvre.  

To get back onto the book itself, however, because we should be wary of trying the reader’s patience with too long of a review, I want to reflect for a minute on the matter of its being a satire.  Now there are several things that are often called “satire.”  One of them is Catch-22 and another is the book I’m currently reading (The Sellout).  Jonathan Swift is often called satire.  In fact, I took a course in satire in high school.  Welcome to the Monkey House  was on the syllabus, as was Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, and The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh.  “The Simpsons” is often called satire.  All of these things tend to be an unrealistic portrayal of society, but in a way, end up being more real than real.  That is, they are more revealing of human nature and incisively honest than the majority of traditional storytelling tropes.  I started thinking about film adaptations of satires and reflected that they normally did not work very well.  I remember hearing that Catch-22 is a better movie than Slaughterhouse-Five (and note--does anyone know if the title has any relation to that literary antecedent satire on the subject of World War II?).  

I digress.  There are many numerous passages in this book, but it is best to discover them on your own.  I will just cite a highly personal one for me that I can find.  But before that, I also have to admit that, what initially stood out to me about this novel was its ending.  I think the ending is quite striking.  It’s the type of ending that feels incredibly perfect, like A Farewell to Arms.  Okay, it is no Farewell to Arms ending, but it is one of the most memorable things about the novel, in my opinion.  However, this time, I was most drawn to take a certain line from it.  

“The Germans sorted out the prisoners according to rank.  They put sergeants with sergeants, majors with majors, and so on.  A squad of full colonels was halted near Billy.  One of them had double pneumonia.  He had a high fever and vertigo.  As the railroad yard dipped and swooped around the colonel, he tried to hold himself steady by staring into Billy’s eyes.  
The colonel coughed and coughed, and then he said to Billy, ‘You one of my boys?’  This was a man who had lost an entire regiment, about forty-five hundred men -- a lot of them children, actually.  Billy didn’t reply.  The question made no sense.
‘What was your outfit?’ said the colonel.  He coughed and coughed.  Every time he inhaled his lungs rattled like greasy paper bags.  
Billy couldn’t remember the outfit he was from.  
‘You from the Four-fifty-first?’  
‘Four-fifty-first what?’ said Billy.
There was a silence.  ‘Infantry regiment,’ said the colonel at last.  
‘Oh,’ said Billy Pilgrim.  
There was another long silence, with the colonel dying and dying, drowning where he stood.  And then he cried out wetly, ‘It’s me, boys!  It’s Wild Bob!’  That is what he had always wanted his troops to call him: ‘Wild Bob.”
None of the people who could hear him were actually from his regiment, except for Roland Weary, and Weary wasn’t listening.  All Weary could think of was the agony of his own feet.  
But the colonel imagined that he was addressing his beloved troops for the last time, and he told them that they had nothing to be ashamed of, that there were dead Germans all over the battlefield who wished to God that they had never heard of the Four-fifty-first.  He said that after the war he was going to have a regimental reunion in his home town, which was Cody, Wyoming.  He was going to barbecue whole steers.
He said all this while staring into Billy’s eyes.  He made the inside of poor Billy’s skull echo with balderdash.  ‘God be with you, boys!’ he said, and that echoed and echoed.  And then he said, ‘If you’re ever in Cody Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!’  
I was there.  So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O”Hare.” (42-43)

Later on, Billy Pilgrim is nervous about something (giving a speech I believe), and he remembers the line to help him feel better, and there is a sort of great comfort in the line.  Vonnegut has an excellent ear for this sort of thing, which I remember his displaying earlier here while discussing the origin of Billy’s name (and while I am searching for it, also allow me to express that the “unstuck in time” element to the novel makes it especially difficult remember which things were said or done at the beginning, middle or end of it):

“‘How come they call you Billy stead of William?’
‘Business reasons,’ said Billy.  That was true.  His father-in-law, who owned the Ilium School of Optometry, who had set Billy up in practice, was a genius in the field.  He told Billy to encourage people to call him Billy -- because it would stick in their memories.  It would also make him seem slightly magical, since there weren’t any other grown Billys around.  It also compelled people to think of him as a friend right away.” (33)    

In the meantime, I found a certain passage that I thought I might excerpt due to its personal familiarity to me geographically (Vonnegut also often wrote about Cape Cod and the northeast):

“The worst American body wasn’t Billy’s.  The worst body belonged to a car thief from Cicero, Illinois.  His name was Paul Lazzaro.  He was tiny, and not only were his bones and teeth rotten, but his skin was disgusting.  Lazzaro was polka-dotted all over with dime-sized scars.  He had had many plagues of boils.  
Lazzaro, too, had been on Roland Weary’s boxcar, and had given his word of honor to Weary that he would find some way to make Billy Pilgrim pay for Weary’s death.  He was looking around now, wondering which naked human being was Billy.
The naked Americans took their places under many showerheads along a white-tiled wall.  There were no faucets they could control.  They could only wait for whatever was coming.  Their penises were shriveled and their balls were retracted.  Reproduction was not the main business of the evening.” (50)

And I will end this review by mentioning, that, just by transcribing some of these passages I learned that as a fiction writer, you do not always need to write the word “asked” after a question mark.  (Note that I also wanted to excerpt the bit about the Shetland pony, but do not want to bloat this post any further.)  I think one of the chief virtues of Vonnegut is that by reading him, you are almost certain to become a better writer.  This may be an idiosyncratic assessment, but I would venture to guess that Emily would agree that reading Vonnegut at an impressionable age will make one a better writer, or at the very least, more interested in writing.

This has been the first installment of the Vonnegut Project.  
Next on the Project: Cat’s Cradle (publication target: January 2018)       

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction - J.D. Salinger (1959)

It's hard for me to write about J.D. Salinger without coming off a certain way, so I'd like to open this review by mentioning my friend Libby.  Libby and I met our freshman year at NYU.  One day, she started talking to me about Salinger, I forget why.  Like a lot of people, my primary exposure to Salinger was Catcher in the Rye.   I don't think I had read any of his three other books.  But Libby laid down the line and went through a brief synopsis of each, in particular mentioning how she had written a paper about religion in "Teddy," which was the last in Nine Stories, and extremely beautiful.  She explained that the majority of his work, outside of Catcher, concerned the Glass Family: Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Walter, Waker, Zooey, Franny, Bessie and Les.  Seven children of vaudeville performers, several of them gaining notoriety on a children's quiz show radio program, and others entering careers in show business, the military, the clergy, prose and poetry (sort of).  At least one out of Nine Stories is specifically about Seymour--"A Perfect Day for Bananafish," which is a masterpiece.  Franny and Zooey rightly earns its place on the Best Books List (and Catcher in the Rye, I predict, will make it when it is reviewed--I read Catcher like 6 times over the course of 6 years, but I haven't read it in the last 9).  I had been meaning to read these for the first time in any case, but after Libby's mini-lecture, I made it a priority and read them my freshman year.  I remember having a particular soft spot for Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction and thinking they were as good as any of his other published writings.  I loved him so much at this point, that I tracked down the old issue of The New Yorker that had published his story "Hapworth 16, 1924," and photocopied it and put it in a nice binder and gave it to my mother for her birthday, as she was a massive Salinger fan. I thought this was one of the better gifts I had ever gotten her, but then I actually read it.  Do not read it.  Read it only if you want a reading list.

So I looked forward to revisiting these two novellas, similar in length to Franny and Zooey.  And I found that I felt exactly the same way about Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.  It is a masterpiece on the level of his other three books (to be clear, I do not think I would consider Nine Stories to be in Best Books league, though parts of it certainly are--at least "Bananafish" would make a Best Short Stories list, which isn't a bad idea for a project).  It is hilarious, socially observant, brilliantly detailed, breezily delivered, intriguing, and inviting.  Seymour: an Introduction, however, had aged badly in my mind.  This may come into play in the upcoming series planned for Flying Houses, the Kurt Vonnegut Project, for which I am reading Slaughterhouse Five presently, and for which I have this to say: these books may be influential to young would-be writers because they see the authors having fun with the medium.  You get a sense of the possibilities of literature.  At the time, when I was 19, going through the most artistically fecund period in my life, I thought the conceit of a story like Seymour was tremendously encouraging and successfully experimental.  I don't feel the same about it now.  Basically, I would put Carpenters in Best Books territory, and Seymour in Egregiously Frustrating territory.  I guess I can't actually do that because they're together here.  Anybody that reads Carpenters will go onto Seymour and maybe some people will slog their way through it out of a sense of loyalty to the author and the characters, but they might be better off putting it away after about 30 pages.  I will get more deeply into the details of the plots of each in a moment, but I wanted to put this down for now, to give an overview of my general feelings on Salinger's oeuvre and distinguish my opinions on this, his final published volume.
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is 89 pages long.  It is about Seymour's wedding day.  Buddy is the main character.  The time is May 1942.  Buddy is in Georgia and wrangles a three-day-leave from a stay in the military hospital to take a train to New York to attend the wedding.  He has no time to go to his apartment so he leaves his luggage in a locker at Penn Station.  He gets in a cab and goes to an old house where the wedding is to occur.  After an hour and twenty minutes, the bride, Muriel, leaves.  The guests are told to "use the cars" and Buddy ends up getting into one with Muriel's aunt (Helen Silsburn), the Matron of Honor, the Matron's husband (Lieutenant), and a little old elderly mute man (Muriel's great uncle).  The Matron of Honor is furious with Seymour.  Nobody knows that Buddy is Seymour's brother.  The tension in the early part of the scene is fantastic.

[I have to break in here and make a note.  I'm finding this review hard to complete because of the great deal of time that has passed.  I read Carpenters in early June.  Then I read This Fight is Our Fight, Days of Abandonment, Meet Me in the Bathroom, and Giant of the Senate.  Then I read Seymour: an Introduction.  So while Seymour is relatively fresh in my mind, Carpenters is not.  I can only attribute the gap to library deadlines and procrastination.]

Really, the cab ride reads like a play.
Again, another long break has occurred.  You know what I'm going to say.  Carpenters is great, Seymour is not, so I will attempt to illustrate that with 2 (only 2) excerpts, one from each.  It is a tall task to pick out a representative sample but I think for Carpenters the choice is clear.

"The Matron of Honor seemed to reflect for a moment.  'Well, nothing very much, really,' she said.  'I mean nothing small or really derogatory or anything like that.  All she said, really, was that this Seymour, in her opinion, was a latent homosexual and that he was basically afraid of marriage.  I mean she didn't say it nasty or anything.  She just said it--you know--intelligently.  I mean she was psychoanalyzed for years and years.'  The Matron of Honor looked at Mrs. Silsburn.  'That's no secret or anything.  I mean Mrs. Fedder'll tell you that herself, so I'm not giving away any secret or anything.'"
"'About the only other thing she said was that this Seymour was a really schizoid personality and that, if you really looked at things the right way, it was really better for Muriel that things turned out the way they did.  Which makes sense to me, but I'm not so sure it does to Muriel.  He's got her so buffaloed that she doesn't know whether she's coming or going.  That's what makes me so--'"
She was interrupted at that point.  By me.  As I remember, my voice was unsteady, as it invariably is when I'm vastly upset.
'What brought Mrs. Fedder to the conclusion that Seymour is a latent homosexual and a schizoid personality?'
All eyes--all searchlights, it seemed--the Matron of Honor's, Mrs. Silsburn's, even the Lieutenant's, were abruptly trained on me.  'What?' the Matron of Honor said to me, sharply, faintly hostilely.  And again I had a passing, abrasive notion that she knew I was Seymour's brother." (36...38)

This is the climax of the first "act" of the story, and probably the whole story.  I believe it is representative of the qualities that make for an excellent piece of writing.  I have not seen many other writers italicize portions of words to denote accents on certain words.

I also believed Salinger was something of a pioneer in his use of a footnote or two in Seymour, but recall that Nabokov published Pale Fire in 1962.  Seymour is an intriguing premise.  It is an artistic biography of Seymour by Buddy.  The opening sentence (after two excerpts by Kafka and Kierkegaard) gives a fair indication of how bumpy things are about to get:

"At times, frankly, I find it pretty slim pickings, but at the age of forty I look on my old fair-weather friend the general reader as my last deeply contemporary confidant, and I was rather strenuously requested, long before I was out of my teens, by at once the most exciting and the least fundamentally bumptious public craftsman I've ever personally known, to try to keep a steady and sober regard for the amenities of such a relationship, be it ever so peculiar or terrible; in my case, he saw it coming on from the first." (96)

This is a difficult piece of writing.  It can be very charming at times.  The trope of Buddy writing in a stream-of-conscious style--commenting upon his drinking or the late hour or a recent illness--is one of its more amusing qualities.  One will not deepen their understanding of Seymour by reading it.  It is more about Seymour's effect on Buddy than Seymour himself.  He is every bit as inscrutable a character as he appears in any other place. 

Seymour is mostly notable as Salinger's comment on celebrity.  If one reads the story in this context, it becomes much more interesting.  Buddy is pretty much a stand-in for Salinger.  He lives alone in the woods isolated from society.  He wrote a bunch of the stories that Salinger published.  There are a few moments that definitely break down the fourth wall. 

Salinger has such a small oeuvre, and it is of such a high quality that anyone who wants to read beyond the first exposure (Catcher) will likely go through them all.  This is the weakest piece, but it's still Salinger, and it's not a bad story.  It's just difficult.  It's very frustrating. 

Because then I see the parts I underlined some fifteen years ago and am reminded that to a particular sort of young person, the story is a treasure:

"I'm so sure you'll get asked only two questions [when you die].  Were most of your stars out?  Were you busy writing your heart out?  If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.  If only you'd remember before ever you sit down to write that you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer.  You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart's choice.  The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe as I write it.  You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.  I won't even underline that.  It's too important to be underlined." (160-161)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Chicago Cubs 2017 Report Card

There is a lot I could say about the Cubs this year, but I don't want to spend too much time on this post.  It's always extremely time-consuming, particularly the part where I find new pictures of all the players, and analyze their stats to give a proper grade (so I'll avoid that).  There are two big takeaways: (1) they were not the first team since the 1998-2000 Yankees to win back-to-back championships; (2) their performance was incredibly admirable for how bad they actually were.  Statistically, this was not a great team.  Their statistics in the playoffs were just ridiculously bad.  Yet they fought all the way to Game 5 of the NLCS.  They were a completely mediocre team up until the All Star break, then somehow, magically, turned it on.  They had one All-Star: Wade Davis.  We ended last year on Aroldis Chapman, so let's start this year on Wade Davis.

Wade Davis: A

Chapman got an A, so Davis deserves an A.  He's not as electrifying as Chapman.  But he was the Cubs lone All-Star and he converted every save opportunity he was given except one.  Most importantly, he was on the mound during the two best moments in the playoffs: NLDS Game 5, and NLCS Game 4.  He was pushed to his limits in both performances (as Chapman had been in the World Series last year).  It was not always pretty, but he got it done.  He "does not have a heartbeat."  He is a free agent now.  Who knows what the Cubs will do.  Nobody was disappointed in Davis.  There was plenty of room for disappointment elsewhere.

Mike Montgomery: B

Montgomery actually did relatively well this year during the regular season, but he is getting dinged down to a B because he was not reliable in the postseason.  The same could be said of all their relievers.  He started more games this year, and he filled in those gaps relatively well.  He pitched poorly in both series that mattered, however.  There are many, many players to blame for the failure in the postseason, but the relievers were a primary target, Montgomery as their ringleader of sorts, their long man.  Regardless, he helped to get them there in the first place.  He's not totally damaged goods because his offensive counterparts didn't give him much to work with, so maybe give him the benefit of the doubt and give him another chance in 2018.  His versatility still has value.

Carl Edwards, Jr.: B

Same story here, except Edwards seemed to have a better regular season.  In fact, he had a much better regular season.  His regular season was excellent.  He should get an A-, and Montgomery should get a B+, but they both get dinged for the postseason.  Perhaps this is a quandary in future contract negotiations.  Your team might forget about extremely significant contributions during the regular season due to a disappointing postseason performance.  Like Montgomery, Edwards Jr. had a terrible postseason.  Correction: he was terrible against the Nationals, and almost perfect against the Dodgers.  So I'll boost him up to a B+.  You tend to remember the bad things.  He wasn't perfect against the Dodgers either.  Now I remember that awful Yu Darvish bases loaded walk.  Back down to a B.  During the regular season, though, he was much better than in 2016.  He was an excellent reliever.  He's still young.  Even though he performed much better in the last postseason, there was a different kind of pressure going on.  He's not worth giving up on yet.

Brian Duensing: A-

This is a bit inflated of a grade, but it's to underscore the fact that he didn't screw up too badly in the postseason, like his colleagues.  His numbers looked good overall, but it seems like he wasn't put into as many high pressure situations as CJEJ or MM.  I think most people feel that he should be kept on the team.

Pedro Strop: B+

His numbers were nearly identical in 2016 and 2017, and his postseason performance in 2017 should be considered slightly better.  He's under contract through next season, so he'll be with us, and we should be reasonably happy with that.  Here is a sad sentence from last year:  If there was anything that gave Cubs fans pause during the last two series of the postseason, it was the way that the team managed their bullpen.

Hector Rondon: C

During the regular season, he wasn't that bad.  He had a different role in 2016 and 2017.  He was the closer in the first half of 2016, and he performed relatively well in that role.  But the Cubs wanted a lights out closer like Chapman, which is a really nice thing to have if you want to win the World Series (for this reason, I think the Dodgers have the edge this week).  In 2017, they had Wade Davis, so Rondon was more of a set up man.  He had a better win-loss percentage this year, but a higher ERA.  And the postseason was absolutely terrible.  Somehow his numbers don't look that atrocious, and some people say that numbers don't lie, but in the pitching context, sometimes they do.  Somehow his ERA is only 6.00 for the NLCS (he was not on the NLDS roster) but it felt more like 27.00.  He probably deserves a C+ but the C is a reflection of the way the Chicago media took things out on him during the NLCS, giving up a home run on his second pitch, and a grand slam a game or two later.  He's arbitration eligible next year and a free agent in 2019, and I'm still not sure if that means he's staying with us or not (barring a trade).

Justin Grimm: C+

Much need not be said about Grimm.  He had an injury, and he had some problems, and went down to the minors for a bit, and he wasn't on the postseason roster.  His numbers were consequently a bit worse than last year.  Again, arbitration eligible next year, and a free agent in 2020, and I have no idea what that means.

Tommy La Stella: B+

Just to get the back up players out of the way, I didn't even grade La Stella last year, though he famously pulled his retirement shtick then, and I never wrote about it.  My brother[-in-law] once said, when he came up, "Tommy-no-I'm-not-going-down-to-the-minors-La-Stella"  (Actually I think he put on more of a routine, like, 'You're going down to the minors, Tommy,' 'No I'm not.') Even though he basically went MIA, the Cubs gave him another chance, and he put in a more-or-less decent performance.  Same this year, but no drama.  There was drama with Miguel Montero but I'm not going to write about it.  I thought their move getting rid of Montero after comments that it was Jake's fault that he couldn't throw out baserunners was a bit harsh, and there must have been something else going on.  It says something about a guy's personality when he won't admit his imperfections.  Tommy never did that, to be fair--he just considered retiring, like maybe he wasn't meant to play.  It was a bit of a prima donna move, but never claimed to be flawless when the numbers told a different story.  Maybe that's why he got another chance, and he had a much better year offensively (relatively speaking) than last year--he drove in twice as many runs in 23 less at bats.

Albert Almora Jr.: A-

Is it inflated to give Almora an A-?  I don't think so.  This guy showed flashes of brilliance, like Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras and Addison Russell before him.  He's another one of "those guys" that have developed into a legitimate threat on several different fronts (okay, Schwarber is mostly just an offensive threat--but didn't he get a bunt single in the playoffs?).  Almora was excellent in the field, strong on the basepaths, could hit for occasional power, and tended to come up with big hits in clutch situations.  He strung together a few monster games near the end of the regular season.  Okay, he only got one stolen base (the Cubs are not great about base stealing--I think Rizzo led the team and most people thought it was ridiculous when he batted lead-off (though I thought it was hilarious and great)).  His numbers don't look amazingly impressive, but they're strong, and I have every reason to believe that he (still only 23) will improve over the next few seasons.  I found this article on the Cubs off-season plans and maybe you will find it interesting.  While we are on the subject of breakout seasons...

Ian Happ: B+

Happ came out of the gates in spring training like Kris Bryant a couple years earlier--no more time in the minors for this guy, even though he's young, throw him into the fire.  And he did relatively well.  He did better than Kyle Schwarber this year, let's put it that way.  He was no Cody Bellinger or Aaron Judge, but he popped 24 home runs with a respectable .253 batting average.  He's only 22.  Unfortunately with the Cubs, it's always, "But is there a place for him?" I think he was utilized relatively well this year, and it will be interesting to see whether he expects to be an everyday player or a platoon situation utility man.  Not a bad option to have on your team.

Jon Jay: B+

Jon Jay essentially replaced Dexter Fowler.  He did not impact the team's performance as markedly as Fowler, but he was relatively good.  He hit .298.  He was a strong defensive player.  He was their lead off hitter, sometimes, and while he had good speed, only stole 6 bases.  It's most interesting to compare him to Fowler--now and then.  Fowler then scored 84 runs.  Fowler now scored 68 runs, and Jay score 65.  Not a huge difference.  Fowler does have a lot more pop in his bat and had 64 RBI this year (compared to last year's 48), and Jay's 34.  Jay had one more base hit than Fowler this year, and 14 less than him last year. [Note: I realize it is ridiculous to assume that Fowler would not have performed better as a Cub--I believe his play was elevated by the team, which was the sort of magical thing about the team last year.] Jon Jay doesn't feel like as a big a player as Fowler, but he's done a serviceable job of replacing him.

Kris Bryant: B+

I just dinged Kris Bryant for his performance in the playoffs, which will happen to Rizzo as well.  His actual grade is A-.  Last year he was A+.  He was voted NL MVP.  If you're voted MVP everybody pretty much has to give you an A+.  And this year, I think, is an A- year for any player.  He had 29 less RBI than in 2016, but 73 is a respectable number for a #2 hitter.  He had 10 less home runs than last year, but 29 is respectable.  He scored 111 runs (10 less than 121, which led the league in 2016).  He was basically, Kris Bryant, not having a monster season.  Then the playoffs came and he performed anemically, batting .200, striking out 14 times, and drawing one walk.  He did hit one home run, in the last game against the Dodgers, where they lost 11-1.  It wasn't all his fault, but he wasn't a difference maker in any of those games.  He's still Kris Bryant and I fully expect an MVP, or MVP-lite season from in 2018.   

Anthony Rizzo: A-

Rizzo had an A season and gets dinged for similar reasons to Kris Bryant.  For whatever reason, none of these guys were All Stars this year.  They all had mediocre first halves, except for Wade Davis (and he was probably only picked because it's required to have one representative).  He had exactly as many home runs and RBI as in 2016.  It's an All-Star season.  He had 14 less hits, but he drew 17 more walks.  He led the team in stolen bases (tied Javier Baez).  He struck out 18 less times this year, too.  Then came the postseason, where he batted .135 (he could probably live with his NLDS performance, but his NLCS performance was very bad).  He struck out 14 times and got walked twice and hit by a pitch once.  But again, same with Kris Bryant, nobody has lost confidence in Rizzo and he is not 100% to blame, he just didn't lift them up like he (and Bryant) often did during the regular season (though I heard about that pop-up base hit go ahead RBI against Washington the day after the marathon in the car on the way back from getting my medal engraved).

Willson Contreras: A

Willson totally stepped it up this year after a promising 2016 and put in an incredible performance, cementing himself as one of the premiere catchers in the game.  He became the team's de facto cleanup hitter and provided a lot of big hits in crucial situations.  There's basically very few flaws in his game.  He didn't do very well in the postseason either (nobody did--I'm looking for the few exceptions as I do this), but I feel like at least one of his home runs gave a crucial lift.  And let's not forget that pickoff play in Game 5 of the NLDS.  He had big shoes to fill after David Ross's retirement and Miguel Montero's exit, but he proved himself to be an All-Star caliber everyday catcher.  Alex Avila came in near the end of the season, performed admirably, and will probably provide a strong backup option.  The Cubs don't need a catcher.

Ben Zobrist: B

There is no mistaking that Ben Zobrist's 2017 was much weaker than 2016.  I think he was injured for a little while this year.  His batting average was .232.  I almost shouldn't give him a B, he probably deserves a B-, but he was still Ben Zobrist.  He was versatile, and he wasn't that bad in the NLDS (though he did approximately nothing in the NLCS).  Last year I expected him to have "2 more really good years in him."  That was not this year, but I do believe he can still bounce back in 2018 and put in a more respectable performance than he did this year.  Do not forget that he was an All-Star in 2016 (like many others).  I doubt he will be like Barry Bonds and become more powerful as he approaches 40 and beyond, but he could have two more decent years in him...

Jason Heyward: B

I was about to ding Jason Heyward down to a B- because he carries the highest salary of the position players, and I think he was comparable to Ben Zobrist offensively.  Defensively, he was as good as ever, and I expect he will win the Gold Glove again.  He was better than he was last year, and he played slightly less (I think he was injured briefly).  He was pretty much their de facto right fielder, and he moved around in the batting order, but seemed to settle near the bottom of it.  He hit four more home runs and drove in ten more runs than last year, and raised his batting average 29 points.  But the numbers are still nowhere near where everyone expected them to be.  J-Hey is our guy though.  He had a pathetic postseason, like everyone else.   

Addison Russell: B+

Here we have to get into DV again, as discussed in last year's post with re: Aroldis Chapman.  Addison did NOT serve a suspension, but was accused of DV, and got divorced.  He then became injured and played in 41 less games this season.  His numbers really weren't that great, and he doesn't deserve a B+, but he's still Addison Russell, and he still is a great clutch hitter.  I gotta think the DV affected his game--but actually, his batting average was a weak .238 last year (he was just one point better this year).  He did have that 95 RBI stat though, down to 43 this year (but again, 41 less games played).  He was actually terrible in the NLCS (really, everyone was), but respectable in the NLDS.  Still you keep Russell and Baez together, just like you keep Rizzo and Bryant together.  You have a pretty good thing going with that infield.

Javy Baez: A-

I'm really just boosting Javy Baez from a B+ last year to an A- this year because he had 9 more home runs and 16 more RBI.  He also had 13 more hits, and the exact same batting average.  He struck out a lot more this year than last year, though.  He is fantastic in the field and should be considered a Gold Glove candidate.  He wasn't an All-Star last year, but he should be next year.  He really sucked in the playoffs, too, but those 2 home runs in Game 4 of the NLCS prevent him from getting dinged for it.  He was a difference maker in that game, at least.

Kyle Schwarber: C+

Now it might have been a bit inflated to give Kyle Schwarber an A+ last year, but for his sample size and the intangible effect of his World Series entrance, it made sense.  Schwarber is still a big power guy, and he hit 30 home runs this year.  But his batting average stayed below .200 most of the year and he barely got it up to .211 by the end.  He also didn't fare very well in the field (whatever happened to him being a catcher?).  I guess it's too late to switch back.  In any case, he would be a fantastic DH.  I would imagine that's going to be a subject of speculation, as I've only seen brief notes, suggesting the Cubs may be willing to deal a few of their formerly untouchable players--one of whom was Schwarber.  People will still love Kyle Schwarber, and his postseason was not great by any stretch, but semi-respectable.  Take him or leave him, he is still a legend here, and he should not be dispatched unceremoniously. 

Kyle Hendricks: A

The other Kyle, the one that has rose from obscurity into Cy Young runner-up status in 2016, had a respectable 2016, though the numbers don't look quite as appealing. He got better as the year went on, and he was still the guy that people wanted to hold the ball in big games.  He didn't have it the same way he did last year, and nobody really did.  He wasn't an All-Star in 2016, either.  Hendricks is still my favorite pitcher on the team.  He should never be let go unless he starts seeking Jon Lester money.  He seems to be under team control for the next few seasons.  He was still paid under $1 million this season.  He didn't set the world on fire quite like last year, but fans of the team know that he still inspired more confidence than any of the alternatives.

Jake Arrieta: A-

Jake wasn't the same as he was in 2016 (and certainly not like he was in 2015), and he suffered that famous hamstring injury, but he turned in a respectable performance this season, getting a very memorable win in Game 4 of the NLCS.  Famously (Jake was clearly the most famous Cub this year--not (Bryzzo)--I digress), that game may have been the last one pitched in a Cubs uniform.  It's weird.  From like everything I have read, approximately zero people expect Jake to remain on the team next year.  He is going to look for Jon Lester money.  Whether or not the Cubs pay it may depend upon the alternatives available in the marketplace, but it really doesn't feel like that will happen.  If so, I will miss Jake, but not his politics (he posted a really awful tweet on Election Day).  I still have his jersey t-shirt, and I'll still admire him as a competitor, and I don't doubt that he will remain one of the fiercest in the league over the next several years.  Just watch the walks, sometimes.

Jon Lester: B

When you look at Jon Lester's career with the Red Sox, it's not surprising that he got a contract like he did.  He had approximately one bad year there.  He passed 200 IP every season but one, and that was 191.  He passed 200 in 2015 and 2016, too.  He was absolutely phenomenal last year (really--people wonder about the difference between these two teams, and why it seem fated for the Cubs to win--just look at the numbers of their top 3 guys).  He truly had an A+ season along with Kyle Hendricks, and Arrieta not far behind. Actually he did much worse than in 2015, which was viewed as a slight disappointment (again, by the numbers).  Really, I think they are inflated due to a couple very poor outings, where he was shelled for 8 runs in the first inning or two.  I remember turning on the game about thirty or forty minutes after it started, and seeing that it was still in the first inning, that the opponent (I forget who) had 8 runs, and he was walking off the mound in the most dejected manner imaginable.  There were flashes of the Jon Lester of the recent past.  2016 was his best year yet.  He had some trouble, but when it got time for the playoffs, he was ready to go, and he pitched very, very well.  He will battle with Hendricks for the top of the rotation, and they provide a solid 1-2 punch at the top, with this next guy rounding out the top 3.  Some people seem to think that Lester is "aging" and while yes, I have felt a difference in my own body between 32 and 34, I have every reason to believe and that Lester could be back in 2016 (or at least 2015) form next year.
Jose Quintana: B+

He probably deserves an A-, but he gets dinged for the NLCS.  He pitched very well in 14 regular season starts, and if he can replicate that performance, the Cubs are going to pretty set with their pitching.  I really only saw him pitch a few times and I have to say I was disappointed in the playoffs.  But it was tough to be perfect against a team of hitters like the Dodgers.  In short, picking up Jose Quintana was the biggest move the Cubs made all year, and it wasn't just done with one season in mind (unlike Aroldis).  Next year will be crucial for Quintana, an absolutely solid #3 starter.

John Lackey: B-

John Lackey didn't come here for a haircut, and he'll leave with another World Series ring, and a solid end to a storied career.  Lester is to the Red Sox as Lackey is to the Angels.  He will likely retire, people seem to be saying.  But who knows?  Would they bring him back on a one year contract?  He gave up a ton of home runs.  He was something of a liability on the mound.  Maybe as a #5 starter.  In any case, they need a #4 starter.

Joe Maddon: A-

Joe Maddon will be back to manage next year, and the vast majority of Cubs fans are happy with that.  People are expressing shock that Chris Bosio was just fired as pitching coach, supposedly to make way for Jim Hickey.  I'm not sure how much Bosio or Maddon are to blame for some of the pitching decisions, but a new pitching coach can't hurt.  You can't say Bosio was a bad coach in 2016 with the way the staff performed.  My brother[-in-law] intensely dislikes Maddon.  He is in the minority.  Sometimes I understand why he feels that way.  He is too wacky (note that I, and many others I am sure, adore him for said wackiness--"I like crazy").  Look no further than the 2 ejections in the NLCS.  He was vindicated by the umpire that made the call the next day, but he almost seems to relish opportunities to grandstand like that.  I am definitely a Joe Maddon fan.

Nevertheless, he piloted a team that is best described as "Zombie Cubs."  Zombie Cubs somehow stumbled their way into game 5 of the NLCS.  They were absolutely terrible, but they kept going and going, eking out victories here and there.  As mentioned earlier, NLDS Game 5 should rightfully go down as one of the greatest playoff games in baseball history.  It had all the drama of World Series Game 7 last year.  It was a fun (and painful) game to watch.  As was NLCS Game 4.  It wasn't quite as dramatic, and it was a lot more fun to watch, because we had all basically already given up anyways.  Nobody is giving up on them next year.  I think the main problem they have to deal with is cynicism.  Cynicism with their brand and their relentless commercialism.  Raising ticket prices, probably making beers $1 more next year.  I try to ignore that stuff when I watch the team.  I just appreciate what they've been able to put together.  It has been a lot of fun to get so deeply involved in the playoffs with your own team.  I was in Paris in 2003, and 2007 and 2008 were over before they started, which I think was the case in 1998, too.  These last 3 years have been an amazing time to be a Cubs fan.  I expect next year should be as well.