Novel November

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Reading Review by Michael Channing

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

The true purpose of this book is to allow Vonnegut to pontificate on the wealth divide. There's not a lot of plot, but there are a lot of speeches. The first sentence says a sum of money is the lead character in this tale. From the very start he tells us this is not a normal novel about people. It's about money and ideas.

It's a given that those who don't have money want it, and those who have money want more. Eliot Rosewater is an exception. He feels uncomfortable with his wealth. He didn't do anything to earn it; it was there when was born, being doled out by his family's foundation. The foundation, which on the surface is a charity, was actually set up to allow the Rosewaters to avoid paying taxes on their vast wealth. His father would rather him live a luxurious, respectable lifestyle, but Eliot chooses to live with the poor as he attempts to aid them with unlimited love and limited sums of cash. Whatever anyone asks of him, he does it. Can't pay the phone bill? Have some cash. Scared of the lightning? That's okay, you can call at any hour. He judges no one, turns no one away regardless of the size of their request. This sounds ideal, almost Christ-like. But there are problems. For one, that person with the late phone bill will come up short next month. And the month after that. The woman who calls during every thunderstorm will live and die alone and afraid. She can reach out to Eliot on the phone, but her crippling phobias go untreated. Eliot is doing small, personal favors, but the larger issues are forever unsolved. The foundation that bears his family name is a faceless, impersonal entity with a selfish ulterior motive, but foundations promote culture, job growth, housing, communities, not just singular handouts that only get the recipient through to the end of the month, or, as it often is, to the end of the day. You have to question whether Eliot is acting out of true kindness, or if his random acts just serve to bolster his own self worth.

If we decide that Eliot is a true saint, we still wonder just how much good his unconditional love really does. And you have to question if it’s love at all. Eliot often forgets the names of the people who visit him each month. He sometimes forgets immediately after handing them a handful of money. Call that love? By giving his love freely to everyone, he has greatly diminished its worth. His own wife is on level with the town drunk. It feels that Vonnegut wants to champion charity and unconditional love, but he admits it can swing too wide.

But the other side of the argument, the one that states if you give everything away, you’ve nothing left for yourself, is just as distasteful, perhaps more so. Anyone in this book who has money is either a thief or the progeny of thieves. The Rosewater fortune was acquired through an act of brotherly betrayal. That sin was passed down through the generations, no one being able to slough it off or redeem it. Eliot tried, but it only left him a friendless, drunken, slovenly mess. The ones who accepted the surplus of cash have no clue how their wealth was amassed or how it can be that the poor exist at all. Why don’t they just work hard like I did? I took over the company my father gave me and made my own way. Of course being given stolen money at birth doesn’t necessarily make you dishonest. Staying blind to the truth of your luck, however, does indicate your heartlessness. But then look at Eliot Rosewater, driven mad by his quest for equality. Vonnegut continually counters his own arguments till we’re unsure who is righteous and who is to blame.

While exploring wealth inequality, Vonnegut also tackles the mostly unacknowledged American class system. Not only does our bank account determine what we can buy, it also drives our self-worth. As Eliot attempts to comfort the woman afraid of lightning, Vonnegut switches the narrative focus to a separate, poorer, branch of the Rosewater family. We meet Fred Rosewater, an insurance salesman with low self-esteem, a daughter who doesn’t respect him, and a wife who barely acknowledges his existence. All three are groping for wealth and status in their own ways. Fred tells potential insurance customers about his wonderful wife and explains how he has planned for her future. His wife, meanwhile, spends fistsful of money on extravagant lunches with her much-wealthier friend, hoping to eventually be accepted into the ranks of the rich. Their daughter buys smutty books at the pharmacy and sells them at a markup to the same customers Fred chats up with tales of family bliss. Fred and his family are not the only ones leading a lie. We see a rich woman who pretends to understand classical music and a businessman whose family company will soon be bankrupt. In Vonnegut’s world view, no one, not the working man or philanthropist millionaire, has a firm grip on anything you might call happiness.

Maybe that’s the point. The unbridgeable divide generates misery on both sides. But Vonnegut isn’t hopeless. While he gives almost equal time to arguments for and against the open-market system, he is fully in favor of altruism. He’s an honest artist who understands that true selflessness is hard to achieve and can harm just as much as greed can, but his sympathies are with Eliot and not the lucky few who deny others access to the money river they were born next to. Vonnegut is an unapologetic liberal. So am I, which is probably why I’m so drawn to his work, but what make his viewpoint more valid than his counterpart on the conservative side is he understands and acknowledges the flaws in own ideology. That means he explored his beliefs thoroughly and deeply before taking them as his own. That’s the kind of artist you can trust.

I’ve gone on and on about the philosophies of this book. I’ve mentioned that it is heavy on rants but light on plot. But I’ve not mentioned how well written and funny it is. Vonnegut is a master at constructing a sentence perfectly, so that it rolls off the tongue and sticks in the mind. Nearly every page contains at least one t-shirt-ready quote. And the jokes range from pointed satire to broad slapstick. America may never solve its wealth discrepancy, but I hope we'll always have artists like Kurt Vonnegut to remind us of how ridiculous we are, trading little strips of paper back and forth like they're actually worth something. God bless him.

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