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“[Kurt Vonnegut] has never been more satirically on-target. . . . Nothing is spared.”— People

Jailbird takes us into a fractured and comic, pure Vonnegut world of high crimes and misdemeanors in government—and in the heart. This wry tale follows bumbling bureaucrat Walter F. Starbuck from Harvard to the Nixon White House to the penitentiary as Watergate’s least known co-conspirator. But the humor turns dark when Vonnegut shines his spotlight on the cold hearts and calculated greed of the mighty, giving a razor-sharp edge to an unforgettable portrait of power and politics in our times.

Praise for Jailbird

“[Vonnegut] is our strongest writer . . . the most stubbornly imaginative.” —John Irving
“A gem . . . a mature, imaginative novel—possibly the best he has written . . .  Jailbird  is a guided tour de force of America. Take it!” — Playboy

“A profoundly humane comedy . . .  Jailbird  definitely mounts up on angelic wings—in its speed, in its sparkle, and in its high-flying intent.” — Chicago Tribune Book World
“Joyously inventive . . . gleams with the loony magic Vonnegut alone can achieve.” — Cosmopolitan
“Vonnegut is our great apocalyptic writer, the closest thing we’ve had to a prophet since . . . Lenny Bruce.” — Chicago Sun-Times
“Vonnegut at his impressive best. . . . His imaginative leaps alone . . . are worth the price of admission. . . . His far-reaching metaphysical and cultural concerns . . . are ultimately serious and worth our contemplation.” — The Washington Post

310 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1979

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About the author

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

516 books32.6k followers
Kurt Vonnegut, Junior was an American novelist, satirist, and most recently, graphic artist. He was recognized as New York State Author for 2001-2003.

He was born in Indianapolis, later the setting for many of his novels. He attended Cornell University from 1941 to 1943, where he wrote a column for the student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun. Vonnegut trained as a chemist and worked as a journalist before joining the U.S. Army and serving in World War II.

After the war, he attended University of Chicago as a graduate student in anthropology and also worked as a police reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago. He left Chicago to work in Schenectady, New York in public relations for General Electric. He attributed his unadorned writing style to his reporting work.

His experiences as an advance scout in the Battle of the Bulge, and in particular his witnessing of the bombing of Dresden, Germany whilst a prisoner of war, would inform much of his work. This event would also form the core of his most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five, the book which would make him a millionaire. This acerbic 200-page book is what most people mean when they describe a work as "Vonnegutian" in scope.

Vonnegut was a self-proclaimed humanist and socialist (influenced by the style of Indiana's own Eugene V. Debs) and a lifelong supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The novelist is known for works blending satire, black comedy and science fiction, such as Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Cat's Cradle (1963), and Breakfast of Champions (1973)

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,075 reviews
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,882 reviews16.6k followers
October 22, 2019
Not one of the better known Vonnegut novels, and significantly different than most of his other collection. This is perhaps his most serious work.

Jailbird lacks the absurdist bent characterized by so much of his other satire, and is conspicuously somber throughout most of the book, though it still features Vonnegut’s fast style and light approach. This might also be his most politically dogmatic work, eschewing his ubiquitous humor and playful wisdom with a staid, thoughtful passion for rights needing to be championed.

All the same, he tackles some heavy subjects and embraces the themes with a mature, though still wry humor.

***** 2019 re-read

I had a conversation some time ago about the best books of Joseph Conrad and how some people would be in the Heart of Darkness school (that’s me) others would favor Lord Jim or Nostromo, and I made an honorable mention vote for Victory as a dark horse and that some people could see that fine work as their favorite Conrad novel.

Likewise, if asked which of Vonnegut’s many fine books was their favorite, the pie chart created would see big pieces cut for Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five. My own vote would go to Breakfast of Champions, one of my all-time favorite books. But like Conrad’s Victory, I can see where someone would say that Jailbird is their Favorite Vonnegut Book! It has a style and charisma all its own.

In today’s polarized American political society, which has unfortunately permeated into just about any aspect of American life, we frequently hear the term “socialist” thrown around. Vonnegut would likely have identified himself as a socialist.

He famously invited graduating college students to dedicate their lives to a socialist government. He was a proud member of the “greatest generation” who survived the great depression and then went to fight WWII. Vonnegut would have voted enthusiastically for FDR and for his New Deal policies.

He also said this:

“Socialism" is no more an evil word than "Christianity." Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition. Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal and shall not starve.”

And so we come to his 1979 publication Jailbird, about capitalism, socialism, McCarthyism, labor, wrongs and rights, relationships, and privilege. Vonnegut introduces Walter F. Starbuck as our narrator and protagonist. Walter is writing his memoirs after having served time in prison for his involvement in Watergate.

Interestingly, Watergate was perhaps my earliest political memory. I would have been five or six when most of that went down and I heard the odd word and all the talk on the news at night and recall my grandfather saying “grumble grumble Nixon” while watching. And so on.

Starbuck had been raised in the home of a millionaire capitalist whose family had viewed the “Cuyahoga Massacre” a labor protest that was met by betrayal, violence and murder. His sponsor sends him to Harvard and being a “Harvard Man” is a ubiquitous label of undeserved privilege throughout the novel.

While Kilgore Trout does not make an appearance, his name is, as a character writes short stories and used as his pseudonym Vonnegut’s recurring SF writer. Vonnegut’s use of Trout’s stories is a brilliant literary device to introduce an oblique idea into the narrative.

We also learn some facts about the tragic Sacco and Vanzetti case and here Vonnegut demonstrates his considerable skill as a storyteller because in those chapters we live again the “red scare” from the first world war that resulted in this miscarriage of justice. Vonnegut also gives us a colorful description of the labor movements throughout the twentieth century.

Finally, and here I am coming out of left field with a very obscure and perhaps incorrect comparison, but I wondered if KV was not inspired by Jean Giraudoux’ 1943 play The Madwoman of Chaillot, with its portrayals of backroom deals and a network operating behind the economic scenes. Vonnegut’s madwoman would be Mary Kathleen O'Looney, one of his most delightful characters.

Highly recommended.

Profile Image for Jim Fonseca.
1,100 reviews7,195 followers
February 18, 2020
If I selected one passage to tell what this book is abut I’d pick this: “I still believe that peace and plenty and happiness can be worked out in some way. I am a fool.”

The author is famous for his biting satire (and cynicism?) and, as one reviewer says in the blurbs, “nothing is spared.” It’s loaded with political satire and black humor.

The back cover gives a summary that I will use so I don’t give away too much of the plot:

“Jailbird takes us into a fractured and comic, pure Vonnegut world of high crimes and misdemeanors in government—and in the heart. This wry tale follows bumbling bureaucrat Walter F. Starbuck from Harvard to the Nixon White House to the penitentiary as Watergate’s least known co-conspirator. But the humor turns dark when Vonnegut shines his spotlight on the cold hearts and calculated greed of the mighty, giving a razor-sharp edge to an unforgettable portrait of power and politics in our times.”


Written in 1979 Vonnegut was prescient in predicting outfits like Amazon – just about every company mentioned in the book is owned by a super-huge world-wide corporation called RAMJAC or a subsidiary of RAMJAC.

The main character pines for his deceased wife and his son with whom he has no contact. He resents his son’s lack of connection to him and says he deserves a better son, but he also admits that his son deserved a better father. “Fair is fair.”

There are a lot of coincidences almost to the point of fantasy. This gives the novel one of its main themes “Small world.” (Like “So it goes” in Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five.)

There’s a lot about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Harvard men – the main character is one. He reflects on his radical days with union activism. He was a socialist/communist and even got questioned by Congressman Nixon of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In a “small world” scenario the main character ends up working as a minor advisor to Nixon in a sub-basement office in the White House. (He interacts with Nixon only once, as the butt of one of the President’s jokes.)

Some of his political reflections are still modern and could come today from Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren “She was talking about rescuing the people of the United States from their economy…” He’s riding in a car where the driver has a kiddie steering wheel attached to the passenger side. “He [the driver] said that the President of the United States ought to be give a wheel like that at his inauguration, to remind him and everybody else that all he could do was pretend to steer.”

We also get mini-history lessons about Sacco and Vanzetti and union advocate Powers Hapsgood upon whom Vonnegut’s character Kenneth Whistler is modeled (as he tells us). It’s also a realistic portrayal of the difficulties faced by people trying to get their life back together after release from jail.


I enjoyed the book. It’s fast paced and, like other Vonnegut’s works, filled with black humor, satire and sarcasm.

Top photo Nixon examining microfilm on the on the HUA Committee from moma.org/media
The author (1922-2007) with his wife and children, 1955 from wikimedia.org
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews927 followers
February 21, 2022
“I still believe that peace and plenty and happiness can be worked out some way. I am a fool.”

KURT VONNEGUT: PLAYBOY INTERVIEW (1973) - Scraps from the loft

Jailbird has been called Kurt Vonnegut's Watergate novel. What it lacks in absurdity (at least compared to his other novels) is more than made up for by his biting sarcasm, cynical insights and dark humor. Our protagonist, William F. Starbuck, is a minor-level co-conspirator in Nixon's White House who is sent to a minimum security prison for two years. Interweaving political and labor history with fact and fiction, Vonnegut also turns Jailbird into a novel about the death of idealism.

After being released from jail, our protagonist, Starbuck, is 'reunited' with a former girlfriend, Mary Kathleen, who is now a bag lady. Though this is a minor part of the novel, I liked that she remembered Starbuck as good and full of potential. She finds validation in that belief when he tells her he has been incarcerated. As a jailbird, Starbuck's potential is largely gone as is any meaningful relationship with family or friends; however, Mary Kathleen has lost big chunks of her memory. She sees Starbuck as he would like to see himself.

Vonnegut's personality comes through in Jailbird. I prefer Vonnegut novels that veer toward the absurd. Still, Jailbird is an interesting and engaging read. 3.75 stars
Profile Image for Steven  Godin.
2,491 reviews2,373 followers
August 25, 2022

Another slick satire from Mr. Vonnegut. Here the focus lies with Watergate, Communism, trade unionisms, labor history and capitalism, through the eyes of narrator Walter F. Starbuck. And once again we have Vonnegut's much traveled character Kilgore Trout making an appearance. For those who are familiar with him, it might not come as a surprise he is in jail for treason. But this is all about Starbuck, who finds himself out of the can in 77, where he arrives in New York and falls pray to an all too powerful conglomerate - RAMJAC - that seems hell-bent on owning most of the planet. Flashing back over his life: brought on by the fact he keeps running into people from his past in one coincidence after another, the son of a millionaire's chauffeur and Harvard grad meets and falls in love with a young Irishwoman, and through radicalization joins the Communist Party. It's then off to join Roosevelt's New Deal before he quits the party on the occasion of the Nazi-Stalin pact. Whilst In Nazi Germany through the Second World War he meets and marries a death-camp survivor and has dealings at Nuremberg. On returning to Washington he betrays, by complete accident, a friend, and winds up grabbing the attention of Nixon, who, after years of joblessness for our man Starbuck, makes him his special adviser on youth affairs. Great! - he's got himself a decent job in government! . . . Big mistake of course. Hmm . . . where did that money come from hidden in his office, I wonder? Everything zips along nicely, but starts to fizzle out a bit in the last third, but there is no doubt in Walter F. Starbuck we have another fined crafted Vonnegut central character. Not as fun to read as Galápagos, nor as biting and memorable as God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (which I thought was great). 3.7/5
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
810 reviews1,267 followers
June 18, 2022
"We are here for no purpose, unless we can invent one. Of that I am sure. The human condition in an exploding universe would not have been altered one iota if, rather than live as I have, I had done nothing but carry a rubber ice-cream cone from closet to closet for sixty years."

Unlike Kurt Vonnegut's other books I've read, Jailbird doesn't seem to have much of a message, a purpose. Perhaps that is its purpose, to highlight the purposelessness of everything?

It's the story of Walter F. Starbuck who, though his parents are poor and working class, is sent to Harvard by his parents' employer. It's not because he's particularly bright; he isn't. Mr. McCone, who is filthy rich, doesn't have a son. Young Walter plays Chess with him. Ergo, he gets to go to Harvard. It's not about brains, it's about who can pay.

"I was a robot programmed to behave like a genuine aristocrat."

Mr McCone is wealthy not because he is particularly intelligent or hard-working or innovative. He isn't. He's wealthy because his family is wealthy.

His family is wealthy because, for generations, they've taken advantage of the working class, paying them as little as possible so they themselves could get more and more money. Capitalism! What a wonderful system! (For the few)

You'd think young Walter would be grateful for Mr McCone's generosity and subscribe to trickle down economics. Instead, he becomes a Communist. This was during the Great Depression and it wasn't yet the worst crime in America to be sympathetic to Communist ideals.

We follow Walter throughout his life, as he works for Nixon and is later sentenced to prison during the Watergate scandal. When he is released, a series of fun coincidences puts him near the top of the capitalist hierarchy.

Jailbird is written in Vonnegut's witty and sarcastic style. It moves along slowly and yet it's hard not to be invested and keep wanting more.

Vonnegut was often prescient and he was in this book as well, showing how corporations would grow and grow if capitalism isn't reined in, how the richest will suck up more and more of the wealth.

The richest, at best, turn a blind eye to the suffering of those they profit from. It behooves them to not care about those they deem below them.

"Nobody who is doing well in this economy ever even wonders what is really going on."

Maybe this book had a purpose after all. Maybe the whole point was to show the evils of unchecked capitalism. Whatever the case, Vonnegut is always a joy to read.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,599 reviews8,730 followers
November 18, 2016
“I was making my mind as blank as possible, you see, since the past was so embarrassing and the future so terrifying.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Jailbird


Sometimes, I'm not sure if we are running recklessly toward a Philip K Dick future or a Kurt Vonnegut future. Sometimes, it sure seems like a bit of both. Both authors like to play with ideas of fascism. I think part of the draw, for me, of these two authors right now is how they sensed (Vonnegut especially in this book) the absolute absurdity and reality of economic greed, political malfeasance, incompetence, power, and the inability of the huddled, socialist masses to make much of a damn bit of difference.

Part of Vonnegut's appeal is his everyman's view of things. He doesn't write his books from some ivory tower. His perch seems to be closer to a cranky uncle on a beat up couch, with cigarette burns in his pants, gravy on his shirt, and a wink in his eye.

This is the second book I've read after challenging, bribing my 15-year-old son to read some of my Vonnegut paperbacks. I'm now two books into my own Vonnegut revisit. I just ordered LOA's The Complete Novels 4C BOX SET. Peace.

Profile Image for Scott Stevenson.
4 reviews5 followers
January 20, 2015
The author does not want you to know this but Goodreads has just been purchased by the RAMJAC Corporation.
Profile Image for Clare.
48 reviews18 followers
August 15, 2007
I could never choose a favorite Vonnegut book, but when he died recently it was Jailbird I picked up to reread and feel his humanism and his compassion for all of flawed mankind. To me the underlying theme of Vonnegut's work is the importance of fundamental kindness. Even when Vonnegut it as his most negative about a situation, his conviction that compassion and generosity would be enough to fix whatever problem he's dwelling on shines through. His disappointment that this approach is all too seldom used is the root of his cynicism but it is never disheartening to read because of that glimpse of childlike hope that we really could learn to be kind to one another.
Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,465 reviews3,619 followers
September 29, 2016
“Coming right at me was the husk of the man who had stolen Sarah Wyatt from me, the man I had ruined back in Nineteen-hundred and Forty-nine. He had not seen me yet. He was Leland Clewes!
He had lost all his hair, and his feet were capsizing in broken shoes, and the cuffs of his trousers were frayed, and his right arm appeared to have died. Dangling at the end of it was a battered sample case. Clewes had become an unsuccessful salesman, as I would find out later, of advertising matchbooks and calendars.”
Fortune surely plays games with human beings and it played a wicked joke on the main hero of this novel – it turned him into a Jailbird
“My official title in the Nixon White House, the job I was holding when I was arrested for embezzlement, perjury, and obstruction of justice, was this: the President's special advisor on youth affairs. I was paid thirty-six thousand dollars a year. I had an office, but no secretary, in the subbasement of the Executive Office Building, directly underneath, as it happened, the office where burglaries and other crimes on behalf of President Nixon were planned. I could hear people walking overhead and raising their voices sometimes. On my own level in the subbasement my only companions were heating and air-conditioning equipment and a Coca-Cola machine that only I knew about, I think. I was the only person to patronize that machine.
Yes, and I read college and high-school newspapers and magazines, and Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy, and anything else that claimed to speak for youth. I catalogued political statements in the words of popular songs. My chief qualification for the job, I thought, was that I myself had been a radical at Harvard, starting in my junior year. Nor had I been a dabbler, a mere parlor pink. I had been cochairman of the Harvard chapter of the Young Communist League. I had been cochairman of a radical weekly paper, The Bay State Progressive. I was in fact, openly and proudly, a card-carrying communist until Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact in Nineteen-hundred and Thirty-nine. Hell and heaven, as I saw it, were making common cause against weakly defended peoples everywhere. After that I became a cautious believer in capitalistic democracy again.”
But political games are even dirtier than those the fortune is capable of playing.
Profile Image for Tom Quinn.
552 reviews167 followers
December 13, 2021
I read a lot of Vonnegut and find I share a lot of his opinions. Did he plant them in me? Or did he simply articulate better the things I felt already?

"I still believe that peace and plenty and happiness can be worked out some way. I am a fool." (58)

3 stars. This book has an important message but not a particularly memorable presentation, especially compared to Vonnegut's better-known works. He sets up flashforwards in a nifty, forceful and engaging way but there isn't as much razzle-dazzle as his novels that dabble more in science fictiony tropes. Like Mother Night it's a strictly earthbound human drama, tight and quick. Unlike Mother Night, it's a teensy bit mean.
Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
874 reviews2,265 followers
February 26, 2018
Happy Peaceful Jailbirds

This is a curious novel. For the first 11 chapters (170 pages), it read like an autobiography (of a former journalist and Harvard graduate become adviser on youth affairs in Richard Nixon’s administration). Only in the 13 chapters (136 pages) that followed did it take on the familiar comic absurdist style of social commentary for which Vonnegut is better known.

Love of Labour

The novel is a critique of private enterprise, capitalism and the labour relations that are imposed on workers by both small employers and large corporations (such as RAMJAC Corporation, a highly acquisitive conglomerate that owns 19% of the American economy, the ownership of which is eventually gifted to the US government, on behalf of the American people, on the death of the sole remaining shareholder, Mrs Jack Graham):

“[Most of] the businesses of RAMJAC, rigged only to make profits, were as indifferent to the needs of the people as, say, thunderstorms...Some joke on the people, to give them such a thing.”

The business people in the novel are largely corrupt Republican politicians, lackeys, crooks, mobsters and criminals (or is that a tautology?).

The narrator, Walter F. Starbuck, is now a 66 year old grandfather “who, when all is said and done, was a clean and dapper and kindly old man”, but was once a Communist until the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin. While benign in nature, he ends up in prison twice during the novel: the first time as “the oldest and least celebrated of the Watergate co-conspirators”, and the second time on a highly technical charge of unlawfully concealing the will of Mrs Jack Graham.

The sympathetic and sentimental approach to the history of American labour relations (e.g., the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti) reminded me a lot of Thomas Pynchon’s “Vineland” and “Bleeding Edge”, though written before and set midway between the two novels.

Kilgore Trout features as the pseudonym of one of Walter’s fellow prisoners, who spends his time in jail writing science fiction stories and novels (including a story set on the planet, Vicuna - see the poem below).

American Dreams

The tone of the novel gravitates towards a sentimental, dream-like humanism, even when contrasted to the blind faith of the American people (and their corrupt politicians) in the miraculous potential of the invisible hand of capitalism.

It forced me to contemplate whether (and hope that) the Trump administration would end up matching the record of the Nixon administration in filling American jails out of its own number.

Ting-a-Ling (Hello/Goodbye)
[Vicuna Song Dedicated to Kilgore Trout]

(This poem is constructed out of interstitial words and phrases used by Kurt Vonnegut throughout the novel.)

Times change.
Live and learn.
Small world.
Strong stuff.
Too bad.
Time passed.
Nature sympathised.
Life goes on.
And on and on.
That's life.
So be it.
Fair is fair.

Profile Image for Wanda Pedersen.
1,922 reviews385 followers
December 17, 2022
”This is just the dream of a jailbird. It's not supposed to make sense.“

Reading Vonnegut in your fifth decade is much different from reading him in your third decade. I see much different things in his work now and I'm not as enthusiastic as I once was. His books are still worth reading, but I find them much sadder, less funny. The Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon seem like ancient history now, but it was the biggest news when I was in junior high school. Frankly, it now seems laughably simple and straight forward, but then it required all of us to sit up and pay attention to the behaviour of our elected officials.

I'm struck by Vonnegut's characters who wander through their lives, bouncing off events nearly randomly, giving up much hope of achieving any goals. This was well before the concept of “six degrees of separation,” but these people run into acquaintances frequently and accidentally. Serendipity and bad luck seem to dominate their lives. They meander, wide-eyed, from one circumstance to another, strangely accepting of whatever good fortune or mistreatment they encounter.

”All happiness is religious, I sometimes have to think.”

Perhaps because happiness is down right miraculous in Vonnegut's universe, which highlights the grand indifference of capitalism, the grinding effects of poverty, the duplicitous nature of politicians, the uncertainty of justice and the futility of planning or trying to control anything.

”The economy is a thoughtless weather system and nothing more.”
Profile Image for Jean-Luke.
Author 1 book394 followers
July 27, 2022
New York City, Nineteen-hundred and Seventy-seven. Jimmy Carter is President and his third cousin, Clyde Carter, works as a guard at the Federal Minimum Security Adult Correctional Facility on the edge of Finletter Air Force Base near Atlanta Georgia where Walter F. Starbuck is about to be released. In Nineteen-Hundred and Seventy Walter F. Starbuck was given a job in Nixon's White House, and was jailed following the political scandal known as Watergate. But this is a story about so much more than that. There's the American labor movement, the Great Depression, WWII, the Radium Girls, the Red Scare, and good old American capitalism (this review, by the way, is proudly sponsored by The RAMJAC Corporation) to name a few, besides Richard Milhous Nixon and Watergate.

Vonnegut, somewhat more subdued than usual, could honestly have wrapped it up a few pages sooner, but the rather eclectic spaces he manages to dream up within New York City--ie the crown of the Chrysler Building, inhabited by a myriad of prothonotary warblers--will stay with me. Peace.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.5k followers
December 22, 2022
I had never read Jailbird (1979) by Kurt Vonnegut, which I understood to loosely be about Nixon and his henchmen's Watergate criminal activities, and subsequent jailing of all the "finest men" with whom he was surrounded. I bought it at a used bookstore in 2020, hopeful to be able to reflect on the jailing of associates of the then Leader of the Free World. But I finally picked it up as I see the still increased "legal complications" of the previous administration.

Jailbird, I discovered, was less focused on Watergate than the American twentieth-century. I liked one blurb a lot" "A masterful satire. . . at once funny and corrosive; beyond the laughter. . . lies passionate anger. . . at the principal inhumanities of contemporary life in the United States. The anger. . . is kept under exquisite control."

The fictional Walter Starbuck was one of several Watergate break-in men incarcerated. Many of the men Walter meets in prison were "Harvard men," as he himself was. He was born into wealth, as many of these political operatives were, and, well, you already know how hard it is to get into Heaven if you are driven primarily by Greed.

“Most of those businesses, rigged only to make profits, were as indifferent to the needs of the people as, say, thunderstorms[. . . .] The businesses of RAMJAC, by their very nature, were as unaffected by the joys and tragedies of human beings as the rain that fell on the night that Madeiros and Sacco and Vanzetti died in an electric chair. It would have rained anyway. The economy is a thoughtless weather system—and nothing more.”

RAMJAC is a fictional company, a super-conglomerated monopoly pac-manning little companies all over the country, and of course Walter, post-prison, gets appointed as Vice-President. The economy is one part of the apocalyptic vision Vonnegut shares with us. And this is one of his best books after Slaughterhouse Five, another dark and hilarious comedy about man's propensity for self-destruction and cruel treatment of the working class.

One thing Vonnegut is angry about is Sacco & Vanzetti, two immigrants wrongly executed in the thirties, The Depression, when this novel takes place. But we begin with a historical incident, the Cuyahoga Bridge (anti-union, Christmas morning) Massacre (of unarmed families begging for jobs back, or, failing that, food), which shapes Walter's legacy in many ways, and leads him to become the man he is, such as he is.

What else is he upset about? War, disarmament, economic equality, political corruption (Spiro Agnew, one of our finest criminal vice-presidents!). And on and on, and so it goes. Hey, he's a lib, he's woke, imagine that!

Lots of jokes are scattered about the book, things to make you laugh instead of cry. Vonnegut's a humorist and a humanist, not a nihilist.

What can we hope for, post-1979?

“I still believe that peace and plenty and happiness can be worked out some way. I am a fool.”

Vonnegut is Lenny Bruce and Howard Zinn and Mark Twain and FDR all wrapped into one, and tied with a bow for your reading pleasure. On of his very best.
Profile Image for Brian.
707 reviews355 followers
January 19, 2016
This is, if not the best Vonnegut I have read, at least in the top two. The many disparate plot lines and events that Vonnegut ties together seem a natural fit under his great skills.
Once again Vonnegut gives us a hapless protagonist who lets the waves of life wash over him, rarely taking the time to notice or care all that much. "Jailbird" is written as an autobiography of its central character Walter F. Starbuck. Walter's life has always been a life of the moment, and his very values and core beliefs are built upon sand, and shift accordingly. Starbuck is a massively empathetic person, but unfortunately he has learned such empathy only at the end of his life, and after numerous disappointments. Vonnegut seems to be asking why this is the way so many of us choose to learn empathy.
Vonnegut also seems to be satirizing himself, and almost everyone else, when he gives Starbuck socialistic tendencies and acquaintances. Yet, nothing ever comes of these ideals. One reason I have always admired Vonnegut is that although his political beliefs are very leftist, he also has the honesty to admit that they will never work, as long as humans are the ones who try and implement them. The characters in this text are for the most part very decent people. It is the world and society we live in that keep them from soaring. Yet some of them are still able to perform the most decent acts of small kindness.
The major strength of this book is that it is more narrative in style than many of Vonnegut's other works, and the storyline comes together in a very nice falling action that brings all the separate entities of its main character's life together in a very satisfying and clever way.
Profile Image for Paul Dembina.
437 reviews92 followers
December 18, 2022
This was better than I expected. It was after reading this one that I originally fell out of love with Vonnegut. Once more we have a flawed man coming to terms with his various mistakes in a humerous and humanist manner
Profile Image for Janelle.
1,215 reviews167 followers
June 16, 2022
Lots of dark humour, political satire, melancholy, dark tales of forgotten and almost forgotten history, slapstick, coincidence, sadness, prescience (the mega corporation RAMJAC) and much more. Fun and depressing at the same time.
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,952 reviews1,295 followers
February 11, 2015
One of the central conceits of Jailbird is that the RAMJAC corporation seems to own everything, and it is owned by Mrs. Jack Graham, a reclusive woman whom few people have met in person and who gives orders by telephone, confirming them by mailing a letter to her subordinates signed by fingerprints from both hands. That’s weird, right?

Problem is, this is a Vonnegut novel, so it’s not nearly weird enough.

Walter F. Starbuck is a Harvard man, a minor public servant who does time in a white-collar prison for tangential involvement in Watergate. The story begins with Walter’s release; most of his earlier life is told as a series of flashbacks, with Walter meditating upon and foreshadowing various formative events. Having lived through much of the twentieth century, Walter is the world-weary proxy for the author, able to use his decades of experience in the public service to demonstrate how, no matter what happens, this is life. So it goes, eh? As the story goes on, Vonnegut introduces any number of improbably named supporting cast members, dipping into their lives to various degrees, and connecting them in ways both unlikely and realistically serendipitous.

In these respects, Jailbird is typical Vonnegut fare, and for the first half or so, I was quite enjoying it. Despite the setbacks dealt to him, Walter was remarkably mellow. He goes through his life almost as if he can’t believe anyone is bothering to interact with him. So many protagonists of stories are heroes: they are often the most important or become one of the most important people in the story’s setting. Vonnegut seems to have set out to demonstrate that it’s possible to tell a good story about someone who isn’t a hero, isn’t an antihero, isn’t anything. He’s just some guy, you know? He hasn’t made much of a big difference doing anything in his life. But he’s OK with that.

Somewhere towards the back half, though, I began to check out. The novel starts to take weird twists and the plot begins to spiral outwards at an accelerated pace rather than in the tight, constant coils of the earlier part of the book. I wasn’t sure what was going on—but in the head-scratching, unable to enjoy myself kind of way, as opposed to the usual Escher-like constructions Vonnegut springs upon the reader.

Some of this is a personal issue: I’m just not that interested in Watergate or its fallout. It’s difficult for me, as a child of this era, to relate to that particular part of the twentieth century. I feel strange saying that, because I have no problem enjoying the myriad stories set in World War II, which is surely a world much more different from mine than America during Watergate. But I studied World War II in school, and its presence in our culture far overshadows that of Watergate. Moreover, in today’s accelerated news cycle coupled with unprecedented access to information, it seems like a new scandal rears its head every second day. Keeping up with the illegal activities President of the United States and his advisers was exciting in the 1970s. Now it’s just another exhausting facet of your unpaid Internet labour.

Another disappointment peculiar to my tastes and preferences is the dearth of science fictional elements. That’s not an automatic failure—Bluebeard similarly lacks science fiction, and I still loved it. No, just my mood in general at the time was hoping for more zany and unforgettable pulp sci-fi on the order of The Sirens of Titan . Oh well.

I will say this: I like the subtle way in which Vonnegut critiques both capitalism and communism here. Whenever we discuss critiques of communism in fiction, Orwell always dominates. Don’t get me wrong, I love Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm as much as the next self-respecting English student, and Orwell’s corpus of anti-authoritarianist literature is amazing. Yet there is so much more to be said and so many other people saying it.

Latent in Jailbird seems to be the premise that World War II really fucked everything up in terms of capitalism versus communism in a way that few people anticipated. Though its cost in terms of lives was staggering and atrocious, it did jumpstart the economies of Europe and America, even as it triggered the long slide of Russian communism towards its eventual collapse. But the social changes that accompanied the absence of young men from the workforce and the general fatigue with fighting that followed the war really altered the way in which people thought about work and acquiring profit.

(Oh, and having the ability to destroy all life on the planet with a few bombs also changed things.)

Vonnegut is clever in the way he connects the Watergate-era politics of Walter’s career with Walter’s earlier efforts in post-war Germany. He illustrates how the decisions made following the war have influenced the rise of various corporate interests, a process that has continued towards a concerning climax in my time. The RAMJAC corporation lurks in the background of the first part of Jailbird: it keeps coming up, but no one ever discusses what it is or why it seems to own everything. (And I like at the end how Vonnegut reveals that it doesn’t actually own that much—perception can be far more powerful than fact.) That RAMJAC is more of a trojan horse than anything is fun, though I wish Vonnegut had played with the idea more instead of just stating it flat out towards the end.

I’m happy I read Jailbird, and I wouldn’t rule out revisiting it at some point in the future—I might like it better then! That being said, there are plenty of other Vonnegut novels to read, or ones I’d rather re-read first, so that won’t be a priority. It just lacks the volume of satire and humour I want from my Vonnegut, preferring instead elements of pure farce, which don’t satisfy me quite so much. Though still eminently Vonnegut in voice and style, it is not the an exemplar of his work.

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Profile Image for Petergiaquinta.
527 reviews110 followers
April 10, 2020
I don't mind so much the Republicans who embrace greed and general douche-baggery.

But it's those Republicans who cloak themselves in smug, moral self-righteousness, the ones who invoke God and think somehow Jesus would be on board with their selfish hypocrisy, that really annoy me.

In the intro to Jailbird, Vonnegut refers to a letter he had recently received from a high-school reader who told Vonnegut he had read almost everything by him and wanted to share the single idea he found at the core of Vonnegut's life work: "Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail." And he's right; that's the message at the heart of everything Vonnegut has written, including his recently published Letters. This most human and humane of authors who was an atheist and whose books have been burned by these same smug, sanctimonious conservative nutjobs has a better handle than they do on the gospel of Christ which, ironically enough, shares the same message you'll find in those books that were burned.

In the intro as well, Vonnegut relates a lunch he had as a young man still in uniform, recently back in the U.S. after WWII. The lunch was at a restaurant in Indianapolis with his uncle and father and a labor organizer named Powers Hapgood, who had attended Harvard with Vonnegut's uncle, who was politically rather conservative. Vonnegut had told his uncle that he was interested in a labor union job and instead of discouraging him, his uncle had arranged the lunch with his Harvard classmate. Hapgood had a colorful history; he had been jailed many times for his union activities, had led pickets at the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, and in fact had just come to the restaurant after a morning of testifying in court about a labor case. The judge had asked him why a Harvard man like himself from a distinguished Indianapolis family had chosen to live the life he did. He told the judge, "Why? Because of the Sermon on the Mount, sir."

And I like that.

So I picked up Jailbird and just read it again, a book I first read maybe back in 1980 shortly after it was published, when I was the age of that fan who wrote Vonnegut the letter about the message at the core of his books. Having just finished Kurt Vonnegut's Letters, I remembered Jailbird as one of my least favorite Vonnegut books, and I wondered if maybe I had been too young to appreciate it at the time. I could barely remember Jailbird; I knew there was a bag lady and references to unions, but that was about it. Jailbird certainly hadn't become a part of my larger cultural consciousness, the way Cat's Cradle or SH-5 had. I had forgotten the title refers to the least significant of the Watergate conspirators, one Walter F. Starbuck, or that Kilgore Trout plays a minor role in this novel, too, as one of Starbuck's fellow prisoners in the minimum security facility in Georgia where Starbuck is being released after serving his sentence. I had forgotten that Roy Cohn even makes a cameo appearance. In fact, I had forgotten almost everything about this novel, except for the sense that I didn't really like it that much the first time, and so I'm glad I gave it a re-read.

I'm leaving my initial 3-star rating up there, although I'd be tempted to give the re-read 4 stars today. And I'm sure I enjoyed the book much more now than my 16-year-old self did, being older and wiser and more compassionate now that I'm almost 50, as well as a dues-paying member of a union. But it isn't as good as those earlier works by Vonnegut, and its message of treating others with kindness and civility probably comes across better in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

Still, I'm a better person for re-reading it, and the recent anti-labor movements in places like Wisconsin and Michigan make Vonnegut's concerns in this novel all the more relevant today. And my copy of the novel has a photograph on the back of the dust jacket of Vonnegut sitting on the edge of a bed looking out the window and talking on the phone, wearing a stocking cap and smoking what I assume is a Pall Mall. On the window sill is a plate filled with smoked-out stubs. And I like that too.
Profile Image for Michał Michalski.
183 reviews200 followers
March 9, 2020
Najbardziej antykapilistyczna, antyludzka i chyba najpoważniejszą, a jednocześnie najokrutniejsza (i naprawdę rozbijająca dobre samopoczucie niespodziewanymi wkrętami) powieść Vonneguta jaką przeczytałem.
Profile Image for Dan.
267 reviews72 followers
March 11, 2009
I began reading this book just after finishing Anna Karenina and I am glad I did. It was essentially everything Anna Karenina was not (in a good way).

The prose was classic Vonnegut, light, fast paced and strangely hilarious. I look at Vonnegut as many look upon their grandfathers. There are the same corny jokes you've come to expect and despite their corniness you can't help but laugh and be pleased with them.

Jailbird was particularly interesting and at the same time confusing for me. The tale gets wrapped up in just as many historical events as it does fictional and there is also the mention and inclusion of many notable figures from the past 100 or so years.

In the end it doesn't matter where fact and fiction cross or where they diverge. The book was fun and seemingly lighthearted and like Vonnegut always does he make some serious points.

Here is a quote, that given our current economic crisis seems perfect:

"The economy is a thoughtless weather system-- and nothing more. Some joke on the people, to give them such a thing."

I think we are slowly realizing that we are the butt of this joke
Profile Image for notgettingenough .
1,033 reviews1,186 followers
January 28, 2015
It strikes me, not for the first time whilst reading Vonnegut that writers can be divided into two camps. The ones who have to work to include that smart-arse-clever line/sentence/phrase they jotted down somewhere, sometime and really really need to get in. Who was it who said that the more you like something you've written down, the more likely it is that you should take it out? And the ones who, even if what they say hits you with a jolt - and Vonnegut's lines often do that - they nonetheless fit in. They aren't forced, they naturally belong just there where the reader sets upon them. There is a hilarious Kilgore Trout story about Einstein trying to get into heaven in Jailbird. He goes through an audit first and then:

Rest here: http://alittleteaalittlechat.wordpres...
Profile Image for Zoeytron.
1,036 reviews690 followers
June 25, 2013
This was my first foray into Kurt Vonnegut territory, and I expected to have stronger feelings one way or another about his work. Instead, I was mildly pleased when the book was finished and I could move on to something else. It is plain to see that there is a host of individuals out there who regard Vonnegut as an icon, and I will not presume to gainsay them. He simply did not strike a chord with me.

Perhaps if I had read a book or two of his in my younger days, or chosen a different title for my first Vonnegut reading? Unknown, but having read this one, there was simply nothing that makes me want to try another. And that is slightly disappointing.

Profile Image for MJ Nicholls.
2,049 reviews4,117 followers
October 15, 2010
Jailbird is a quintessentially Vonnegutian tale of rich-man guilt and the futility of capitalist America.

The story is most effective when dealing with Walter's love interests. Vonnegut captures the intensity and importance of relationships like no other writer, by stretching them throughout life, showing how love endures more than money or career success. He does this, of course, with dollops of sentimental irony.

I think "sentimental ironist" isn't a bad summation of Vonnegut's style, though his books always have a unique theme or thread running through them.

Profile Image for Jim.
1,167 reviews73 followers
October 4, 2021
4 STARS for this one by Vonnegut, published in 1979. Not one of the better ones by him, in my opinion, but, still, it's Vonnegut! With all his satire and black humor. It's the story of Walter F. Starbuck, Harvard graduate prepared to enter the ranks of government bureaucracy. He winds up in the Nixon White House and becomes the least known of the Watergate co-conspirators. Through the story of Starbuck, Vonnegut shines his spotlight on the cold hearts and greed of those in power.
I miss the science fictional elements such as are found in"Cat's Cradle" or "Slaughterhouse- Five..." except we do get to meet science fiction author Kilgore Trout and he has some stories to tell!
Profile Image for Josh.
299 reviews19 followers
February 1, 2020

As far as lesser-known Vonnegut (is such a thing real?) goes this is nothing spectacular. If you’re an avid Vonnegut reader then you know to expect an emphasis on kindness, a distrust of political figures, and irreverent comedy. This book has all three of course. It also features narrative motifs you might be familiar with: the repetition of a phrase to emphasize a point, for example. “Ting-a-ling” makes another appearance as well.

Anyway, you could go to Rosewater if you wanted something more positive and humanistic.

You could read Hocus Pocus if you wanted something more critical of American politics and democracy.

If you wanted something more serious and somber (this is one of his more somber works) you could read Mother Night.

If you wanted something more irreverent you could read Galapagos.

Point being, this isn’t a BAD book, but Vonnegut has so much excellent work that unless you’re a completionist, I’d recommend skipping this.

As true a 2.5 star book as can be imagined

Profile Image for Erik Graff.
5,030 reviews1,166 followers
August 12, 2014
This is one of Vonnegut's more explicitly politically contemporary novels and one of his best--in his opinion as well as mine. I snuck it in just before starting the second semester at Loyola University Chicago.
Profile Image for Therese.
337 reviews16 followers
December 30, 2022
This book follows the exploits of a least likely Watergate conspirator. While Vonnegut is one of the most notable authors of our day, this book, with its plot seemingly all over the place, just wasn’t my cup of tea.
Profile Image for Dan Witte.
80 reviews7 followers
July 28, 2023
This is one of my favorite Vonnegut books, perhaps because its narrator, Walter F. Starbuck, penned it in Nineteen Seventy-seven, my freshman year in college. As he says at the outset, years are characters as much as humans in this book, and as a fallen Watergate figure who develops a late-life conscience, he seems an appropriate representative of the Nineteen Seventies to me. It’s of course an absurd story filled with the kind of fantasy, foible and wry humor that is so often at the heart of Vonnegut’s work. But it’s also an entertaining commentary on capitalism, socialism, and social awareness, and the unequal application of justice. And it’s a whopper of a name dropper, so much so that it includes an index to every reference from Adam and Eve to Mussolini and Mick Jagger. And the central cast of Watergate, of course, because Starbuck himself is a Watergate jailbird, a circumstance on which all the rest of the story depends. It all worked for me.
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