by Charles WyrickSeptember, 1999
If you're a fan of Kurt Vonnegut, then get ready to celebrate. In September comes Bagombo Snuff Box, a hilarious collection of 23 previously uncollected examples of the comedic gifts of this American original.
Reading Vonnegut like this, in miniature, within the parameters of the short story, one cannot help but sit agog at the color and depth of his characters. Vonnegut is a master caricaturist. In considering his work as a humorist, it is hard not to think primarily of his players, individuals like the indefatigable Kilgore Trout, who tirelessly amuse us as they appear and reappear in his novels. So the wide assortment of individuals found in this collection provides all the more reason to be excited by the publication of these stories. Throughout these tales, Vonnegut focuses on some genuine quacks. Whether it be financial Frankensteins or real estate blockheads, Vonnegut invests most of his energies in parodying individuals warped by their ambitions. Everyone in this book is dead set on being number one. Though there's nothing wrong with exercising a drive for personal betterment, Vonnegut cleverly uses this tendency to show how gross ambition can mutate those it takes for its subjects. Take for instance the protagonist of The Package. Earl Fenton can best be described as nouveau riche. Everything in his life is new and as he tours his state-of-the-art domicile with his wife, he gloats aloud over their good fortune and wealth. Yet the crux of the parody of this vacuous couple lies in another character the humble, less materialistic Charley Freeman. The heart of this mesmerizing tale thus is two fascinating portraits. If we take character names for keys to workings of this dichotomy, it is the pride and moral bankruptcy of the falsely regal Earl, versus the simple joys of the monastic, unencumbered Freeman, that supply the thematic tension for this well-wrought vignette.
Elsewhere in this book Vonnegut highlights the fanatical drive of a high school marching band leader in order to further display his interest in ambition gone awry. George Helmholtz appears in three stories in this collection and serves best as the model for the ambition-blinded American. Helmholtz is consumed by a passion for success. Unfortunately he is a man mismatched with his profession. Such competitive zeal might be better spent on a Wall Street entrepreneur, but for Helmholtz the school marching band is the vehicle for his personal drive. Thus it is bass drums, coronets, and epaulets that fire his imagination and fuel his desire. Helmholtz is a baton-crazed grotesque, a hilarious example of Vonnegut's take on the self-made man.
Throughout this book, through clever characterization and mischievous humor, Vonnegut shows his love for the underdog as well as his distaste for the fat cat. His predilections help show us the many laughable sides to our mercurial human character.
Charles Wyrick plays with the band Stella.