Tuesday, September 24, 2013

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1965)


I first read God Bless You, Dr. Rosewater when I was a junior or senior in high school, on the recommendation of a classmate.  I have not read it since.  I do not know why that classmate felt the need to recommend it so strongly, but perhaps it was because we both had something in common with Eliot Rosewater:

"Eliot had unremarkable academic careers at Loomis and Harvard.  He became an expert sailor during summers in Cotuit, on Cape Cod, and an intermediate skier during winter vacations in Switzerland." (15)

This could hardly be the reason, but the fact remains that I have never read another book whose main character went to the same high school as me.  And that high school should have been proud to put this book on its English course syllabuses--or at least assign it for summer reading for incoming freshman students rather than Clan of the Cave Bear.  Because this book has a very positive message, and is much more fun to read.  I'm afraid, however, that it might be considered "too racy" or "adult" even though it is comparatively tame.

But the book was worth reading in 2000 and it is worth reading today.  Oddly enough, I could appreciate it more after going through law school:

"No one ever went out to lunch with Mushari.  He took nourishment alone in cheap cafeterias, and plotted the violent overthrow of the Rosewater Foundation.  He knew no Rosewaters.  What engaged his emotions was the fact that the Rosewater fortune was the largest single money package represented by McAllister, Robjent, Reed and McGee.  He recalled what his favorite professor, Leonard Leech, once told him about getting ahead in law.  Leech said that, just as a good airplane pilot should always be looking for places to land, so should a lawyer be looking for situations where large amounts of money were about to change hands." (4)

This is how the novel opens up: Norman Mushari is a young attorney straight out of Cornell Law School working for a firm that represents an $87 million foundation headed by Eliot Rosewater.  Eliot also went to Harvard Law School but he does not work for anybody.  He oversees the foundation.  His father is a senator, representing Indiana.  Mushari hopes to have Eliot adjudged insane so that he may be removed as an officer of the foundation and that control may pass to Eliot's second cousin, Fred Rosewater.

The action of the book moves to Rosewater, Indiana.  Eliot's ancestors founded the town, and he returns to set up new headquarters for the foundation.  This part of the book details the breakdown of his marriage to Sylvia and the business that he carries out.  He has a black phone and a red phone.  The red phone is for the fire department, where he is a volunteer, and the black phone is for the foundation.  The foundation essentially takes phone calls from anybody that is having any kind of problem.  Eliot is a sort of therapist and philanthropist to everyone in town.  The people of the town are often referred to as idiots.

In my review of Slapstick, I said that book bears a passing resemblance to this book (though Vonnegut self-graded that novel a "D" and gave this one an "A") and that a theme of that book was "extended families."  God Bless You, Dr. Rosewater is a better book largely because its plot is not nearly as unbelievable.  Yes, the plot is sort of ridiculous, but it is not altogether implausible that a person could be impossibly rich and feel that they don't deserve the money and thus go out of their way to help people less fortunate than themselves.  It is a rather heartwarming conceit, and while I might label most of Vonnegut's novels "heartwarming," this might be his "most heartwarming novel."  Eliot Rosewater is also one of the best characters he created.  Rosewater shows up in a few of his other books, though not nearly as often as Kilgore Trout, who also makes an appearance in this novel.  

There is also some clever commentary on obscenity.  The Supreme Court was still trying to define obscenity in 1965, but Vonnegut offers his own parallel reality:

"The Rosewater Law was what the Senator thought of as his legislative masterpiece.  It made the publication or possession of obscene materials a Federal offense, carrying penalties up to fifty thousand dollars and ten years in prison, without hope of parole.  It was a masterpiece because it actually defined obscenity.
Obscenity, it said, is any picture or phonograph record or any written matter calling attention to reproductive organs, bodily discharges, or bodily hair.
'This psychoanalyst,' the Senator complained, 'wanted to know about my childhood.  He wanted to go into my feelings about bodily hair.' The Senator shuddered.  'I asked him to kindly get off the subject, that my revulsions were shared, so far as I knew, by all decent men.'  He pointed to McAllister, simply wanting to point at someone, anyone.  'There's your key to pornography.  Other people say, "Oh, how can you recognize it, how can you tell it from art and all that?" I've written the key into law!  The difference between pornography and art is bodily hair!'" (95-96)

The plot may be described as thus: Eliot gives advice to people who want to kill themselves in Indiana.  This is the heart of the book and as such I don't want to spoil these scenes.  But there is another segment to the book: the Rhode Island part.  The action switches to Pisquontuit, Rhode Island, where Fred Rosewater, the son of a suicide, sells life insurance and is generally sad about his life.  This is a rather strange part of the novel, though I could not quite call it a misstep.  It just seems to get into a lot of detail about all the people in Pisquontuit, while Fred mainly exists as Eliot's potential replacement.  Mushari is the villain of the novel (though sometimes Senator Rosewater seems like a villain, too) but the book is not about the plot.  It's about how society reacts to a modern-day "saint"--is he a lunatic or is he the sanest man in America?

Like any Vonnegut novel, however, this is pretty light reading, and mostly fun for the humor of it.  But it is still just as relevant in 2013 as it was in 1965:

"'Well--' and Trout rubbed his hands, watched the rubbing, 'what you did in Rosewater County was far from insane.  It was quite possibly the most important social experiment of our time, for it dealt on a very small scale with a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by the sophistication of machines.  The problem is this: How to love people who have no use?
'In time, almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas in the areas of economics, engineering, and probably medicine, too.  So--if we can't find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings, then we might as well, as has so often been suggested, rub them out.'" (264-265)

In short, more people could stand to be like Eliot Rosewater.  If they did so, the world will be a better place.  This is why whenever I receive a phone call from some random person who managed to get my number in some strange way (like, for example, an extraordinary voicemail greeting I left on a phone at the City of Chicago Department of Law in the summer of 2012 that laid out every possible way to contact me) that I listen to them and try to help them as best as I can, rather than saying, "I'm sorry, there is nothing I can do for you."  There is much that can be learned from this book, and even if you didn't go to Loomis, I think you will find it highly worthwhile.

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