Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five

Or The Children's Crusade, A Duty Dance With Death

by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Publisher: Dial Press
Reissue, ©1999, ISBN: 9780385333849
Trade Paperback, 288 pages
List Price: $17.00 Sale Price: $14.45

The best part of any Vonnegut book is the humor. Sure, it's often offensive, but that's the point—it's satire, and the point of satire is to show the absurdities in the behavior and worldview of others. If you aren't offended, you either don't get the satire, or you don't see yourself in the author's pages. And trust this if nothing else: everyone is satirized in these pages.

Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war novel, but more in the style of Starship Troopers than All Quiet on the Western Front. It's an anti-war story that involves time travel, alien abduction, and the main character getting offed by a man with a laser gun. It also involves a science fiction writer of dubious talents and morality named Kilgore Trout, one of the greatest literary characters ever.

Any plot summary of Vonnegut's most famous book is bound to sound like the ravings of a lunatic, which is exactly the way the book itself sounds. Is Billy Pilgrim, prisoner of war-turned-intergalactic space traveler, insane? Or is he merely fragmented, his soul blown to bits just like the firebombed Dresden from which he barely escaped in 1945?

Billy Pilgrim is not the narrator. Instead, his actions are described by someone else, someone with intimate knowledge of Pilgrim's ability to become "unstuck in time". We see Billy captured by Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, put on a train for Dresden, in a cellar during the firebombing of Dresden, put into a psychiatric ward after the war......

......abducted by aliens and taken to Tralfamadore, put in a zoo to be observed, falling in love in captivity with the porn star Montana Wildhack, fathering a son with her, and eventually being shot while giving a speech by a man he knew long ago in the army, a man named Paul Lazzaro who'd vowed to kill Billy for allegedly killing a mutual friend by giving him wooden clogs which led to the friend getting gangrene and dying in Luxembourg.

And stuff like that. Slaughterhouse-Five is certainly not for everyone. Apart from some of the plot elements, there's a ton of profanity of the F-word variety, some naughty humor, and strong violence. But (fortunately) a novel is not merely the sum of its parts, and this one takes a bunch of bizarre elements and throws them together into a staggering whole.

What makes the book really important is the way Vonnegut uses absurdism to show the effects of war. The humor and baffling plot aren't just to entertain us, they're to demonstrate what happens to men and societies in the crucible of armed conflict. This is a really hilarious book, but behind every joke is a sobering truth that every reader should take seriously.

Of course, Vonnegut doesn't get things quite right in the end. While he has brilliant insights into the futility of war, ultimately he surrenders to a blank nihilism that leads to the mantraSo it goes. throughout the entire book. Suffering and destruction are givens, and cannot be averted. As one character says, you might as well write an anti-glacier book as an anti-war book.

Yet here's Vonnegut, writing an anti-war book. And it's a great one, and it makes his points, much more entertainingly than most of his colleagues. If you're easily offended, don't read this one, we warned you. But if you are fond of outrageous humor and a stiff shot of philosophical reflection at the same time, Slaughterhouse-Five is pretty much unbeatable.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Exodus Rating:
FLAWS: Profanity, sexual content, strong violence
Summary: Billy Pilgrim time travels, ends up in an alien zoo, and provides a stunning foil for Vonnegut's criticisms of the violence and meaninglessness of war.

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