Book Review: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 2/17/08


  It is hard not to enjoy Vonnegut. Although Slaughterhouse Five still remains my favorite book of his, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is a quick and entertaining read that cleverly pokes fun at capitalism and greed while being fun all the way through. Eliot Rosewater is a fat slob. His family has recently inherited a large sum of money ($87,472,033.61 to be exact). From the very start, readers are given Vonnegut’s quick wit and humor:

  “A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees,” he states in the book’s opening line.

  Basically, the novel is about the Rosewater family and how they invest their efforts in charity as a means of keeping the government from taxing their money. Right there the subject reminded me of the great line muttered in one of Fellini’s films, where one character states the Benjamin Franklin quote, "In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes, And were I to sum up this novel, I’d say that sounds just about right.

  What makes this book so funny is that Eliot Rosewater is sort of a moron as well as a mediocrity. That he ends up with 57 illegitimate children at the end is beside the point, but the character goes to such extremes to make up for the guilt he feels from having accidentally killed three innocent fire fighters during WWII that his “goodness” borders on insane. Eliot uses his wealth to “better the community” yet ends up battling against a lawyer who is struggling to steal a bit of the Rosewater fortune for himself. And all the while this is going on, I can’t remove the image of Eliot sitting on the toilet surrounded by clippings from Life and Look magazine taped to the wall. That is just some of the little details Vonnegut uses to make his memorable yet pathetic character such a success. Also, the tone that Vonnegut uses also works well because it is, well, pure Vonnegut. Here is just one example that made me laugh out loud:

  “The Client who was about to make Eliot’s black telephone ring was a sixty-eight-year old virgin who, by almost anybody’s standards, was too dumb to live. Her name was Diana Moon Glampers. No one had ever loved her. There was no reason why anyone should. She was ugly, stupid, and boring. On the rare occasions when she had to introduce herself, she always said her full name, and followed that with the mystifying equation that had thrust her life so pointlessly:

“My mother was a moon. My father was a Glampers.”

  Note the straightforward style Vonnegut uses, as well as the small sentences. Over the years many writers have tried to imitate this style, however unsuccessfully. The humor in Vonnegut comes with his delivery but also the matter of fact moments he creates, and his seeming to state the obvious, yet not. For were it truly obvious no one would find it funny. Just as when he says, “ No one had ever loved her. There was no reason why anyone should. She was ugly, stupid, and boring.”

  Point taken. It is tough to argue with that. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater isn’t a book one reads for the mere “plot” because the storyline is somewhat simple and straightforward, but how it is handled is anything but. It is more like a character study about a pathetic character that you love to laugh at. What makes it work is the way Vonnegut tells the tale—through wit and satire he makes this a memorable read. It is silly and at times ridiculous, but never pretentious, and it all seems to work. Many compare Vonnegut to Mark Twain—both in writing style and in physical looks. It would be interesting to see how Vonnegut would stack up were he being published today. Would the critics receive him as well as they do, or do they praise him because he’s been around so long (albeit now no longer—at least in the physical sense)? The reason I ask is because his matter of fact straightforward style, while not “poetic” in and of itself, the way his writing works is when each sentence is stacked upon the other and forms a complete whole. While some reading this might find that a silly statement, what I mean is that Vonnegut is not the sort of writer one reads to cull beautifully written and crafted sentences in the way one does Loren Eiseley. Instead, Vonnegut has to be taken in completion, and his craft comes through via the means he constructs his narrative—i.e. how his sentences play off one another. Just reading that paragraph I quoted above, one can notice a rhythm to the sentences, almost like they pile against each other, ending with a final ba-boom.

  God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is so imaginative in its use of oddity and humor that readers will recall the little jokes and Vonnegutisms long after the book has been put away. Yet it should also be noted that this novel is not just merely a collection of shallow gags set one on top of the other. It is actually a very intelligent satire, commenting on things as wealth, materialism, greed, guilt and gullibility. Ayn Rand used to state how altruism is one of the greatest evils. She simply did not believe others should be put before the Self. Yet in today’s narcissistic culture, one has to wonder if altruism is such a bad thing. Should individuals strive to make things better for others? If so, what would that entail? Mr. Rosewater may have the answer but of course there is a good chance he may also be insane.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]


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