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"While Mortals Sleep" by Kurt Vonnegut

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These Vonnegut stories are timeless

  • Article by: KEVIN CANFIELD
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • February 22, 2011 - 1:42 PM

A quick breeze through "While Mortals Sleep" (Delacorte, 253 pages, $27) from the late Kurt Vonnegut suggests that it's a relic of a different age. And, at least on a superficial level, this is true. Vonnegut's tales are populated by homeowners who receive daily milk deliveries, secretaries who take notes with carbon paper and lovelorn singles who exchange handwritten letters with pen pals.

And so, can we agree that this posthumous collection of Vonnegut's work -- filled with stories aimed for publications that no longer exist -- can be chucked on the trash heap of history? Not quite.

Here's why: There's something distinctly timeless about Vonnegut's vision. As old-fashioned as some of his cultural touchstones might seem, there's no denying that his fiction bears eternal truths.

Take "The Epizootic," a dark tale about a health crisis threatening a major company's bottom line. For reasons that remain a mystery, Vonnegut writes, the life expectancy "for married American males with more than twenty thousand dollars in life insurance had dropped to an appalling forty-seven years." This, of course, is a major concern for American Reliable and Equitable Life's top boss, a man named Millikan who, in addition to being "gruesomely capable," also happens to be 46 years old.

A devoted free-marketeer, Millikan soon finds himself begging the government for a hand: "At the current death rate, this company will be out of business in eight months! I presume the same is true of every life insurance company. What is the Government going to do?" Short of a federal bailout, he plots a press blitz, realizing all the while that revealing the scope of the industry's troubles would set off "the worst financial collapse in the country's history."

The suggestion of a government bailout; a corporation with a cynical media strategy; the notion that a single, faltering sector of the economy can topple the whole thing -- for a story written something like 60 years ago, it's a work of great prescience. (On the matter of the exact vintage of these stories: The book doesn't provide dates; the foreword, by Dave Eggers, says the collection's stories "were written early in his career," which began in the 1950s.)

Though they are not necessarily as topical as "The Epizootic," the other stories here also deal with evergreen themes. "Out, Brief Candle" is about a young widow who craves human interaction and finds it -- if only fleetingly -- in the form of an "eloquent and poetic" pen pal. "Mr. Z" focuses on a man of the cloth whose efforts to aid an exploited woman end with the minister in a hospital bed. In "Ruth," two women quarrel over the child left behind by a man they both loved. And in "$10,000 a Year, Easy," a would-be artist finds that his fear of failure is assuaged by a lucrative business venture.

That's right, when Vonnegut was writing these stories, 10 grand was a lot of money. A lot has changed since then, but to read early Vonnegut is to realize that a lot has stayed the same, too.

Kevin Canfield is a writer and book critic in New York.

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