I attended a book swap party for a friend and I came home with this book. I’d never heard of it, but how could I not be interested in Vonnegut?
This short book is wonderful. It’s nothing like I expected and everything I could have hoped for. In it, you follow the story of Howard Campbell Jr, as told by himself while in prison for war crimes committed during World War II. He was a master propagandist for the Nazis who claims to be an American spy. The reality is he was very good at both. The heart of the story is the exploration personal disintegration. As Vonnegut warns in the beginning of the book: “You are who you pretend to be.”
The dismaying thing about the classic totalitarian mind is that any given gear, though mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teeth that are immaculately maintained, that are exquisitely machined. Hence the cuckoo clock in Hell—keeping perfect time for eight minutes and thirty-three seconds, jumping ahead fourteen minutes, keeping perfect time for six seconds, jumping ahead two seconds, keeping perfect time for two hours and one second, then jumping ahead a year. The missing teeth, of course, are simple, obvious truths, truths available and comprehensible even to ten-year-olds, in most cases.
What caught me off guard, was how a book that touches on so many of the ugliest parts of war is so full of compassion. The cast of characters is comical. A Nazi/American double agent, an unrepentant white nationalist and anti-Semite, a woman who tries to take over the life of her dead sister, a Russian spy who abuses his best friend, a drunk, excommunicated priest, and more. All of them sad, broken and ugly but all treated with compassion by Vonnegut. None flatly evil. All conflicted, full of potential but broken by war.