Kurt Vonnegut announced his literary retirement back in 1997 with the publication of his meta-novel Timequake, and his career since then has sometimes seemed like a playful end-run around that statement: The short-story collection Bagombo Snuff Box, the interview collection God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, and innumerable essays and commentaries have all combined to give the impression that Vonnegut's restless intellect fits into retirement like oil fits into water.
Still, his new essay collection A Man Without A Country is no great return to form for the literary genius behind Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle, and "Harrison Bergeron." A slight compilation weighing in at just under 150 pages, A Man Without A Country comprises various fragments of speeches, essays, interviews, and other bits of ephemera largely reprinted from the alternative magazine In These Times (inthesetimes.com). Some of the material echoes segments of Timequake, while other snippets are quoted from previous novels, particularly Vonnegut's colored silk-screen prints of past poems and epigrams, which also include statements like "The highest treason in the USA is to say Americans are not loved, no matter where they are, no matter what they are doing there."
Anyone who has ideological problems with that quote will doubtless also take issue with Vonnegut's well-publicized stand on George W. Bush's administration, which he acerbically derides here as a collection of conscience-free psychopaths and "guessers" who don't want the facts to interfere with their chosen policies. But in spite of the political-protest bent of its title, A Man Without A Country isn't solely, or even primarily, devoted to present politics. Like so much of Vonnegut's writing, it's a series of quirky, highly quotable, almost non-sequitorial thoughts on everything around him, from his family to his answers to readers' letters to a literary mapping process that proves Shakespeare was a lousy storyteller.
And for Vonnegut, the angels are always in the details. While he continues to flaunt his trademark cynicism, flatly declaring that humanity will destroy the planet shortly and that life is a misery, he still finds immoderate joy in the tiniest things, such as the local postal clerk who changes her hair and makeup daily. ("One day she was wearing black lipstick. This is all so exciting and generous of her, just to cheer us all up, people from all over the world.") That verve for life amid stunningly depressing news, and that backhanded, refreshingly brutal, but infinitely whimsical way of viewing the world around him, continues to stand out in every odd word Vonnegut puts to paper.