Hemingway said “write what you know,” so Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. set out to write about war. Right from the start, Vonnegut had something different in mind. A definite voice telling the story and while serving as the voice of experience – yet being truthful without glorifying.
Vonnegut’s first written piece, “Brighten Up,” was actually turned down for printing after its first submission. Upon second submission, Vonnegut wisely included the explanation that these events really happened to him. After being captured during the Battle of the Bulge (covered in part in the classic 1969 novel “Slaughterhouse-Five”), Vonnegut was a prisoner-of-war south of Dresden in Saxony. The trip there by train proved eventful as the RAF mistakenly shot at them, killing 150. Vonnegut survived that horror to then see Allied forces bomb Dresden to rubble in February 1945.
Weirdly enough, “Brighten Up” is a tongue-in-cheek examination of daily life in the prison camp. There is avarice (his hometown compatriot Louis Gigilano becomes the camp’s wheeler/dealer) which Vonnegut logically ties to both his purpose (“I am wondering now if Hell’s Kitchen isn’t a more sound preparation for living than was the Beaver Patrol”) and quest for pacifism (by not “fighting” the Germans system Louis is only helping smoke their cigarettes, one of the local industries, while the author is “helping keep their streets clean so they can run tanks right through them again”). If logic suddenly disappears to you, that is the purpose after all “war is hell.”
In the camp, Vonnegut is subject to all manner of forces. Trading his nearly $20 watch to Louis for two loaves of bread, Louis only comes through with one - which is then secretly devoured by Vonnegut’s bunk mate. When the cigarettes become currency for the camp, Louis’ coffers swell to the point he controls the flow to both sides. The Air Force bombs Dresden, wiping out a major cigarette factory, and Louis is being offered rings and watches by the Germans. Like Joseph Heller’s Milo Minderbender in “Catch-22,” Vonnegut’s creation of Louis is the embodiment of his feelings on war in general.
While “Brighten Up” was left unpublished, 1950’s “The Report on the Barnhouse Effect” from Collier’s marked his first published work and paycheck ($750, Vonnegut wrote his father after the payday telling him just seven stories a year would pay the same as his “nightmare job at GE” as a publicist). “Barnhouse Effect” is a definite improvement in voice, development and storytelling capability. If it was hard to laugh at the exploits of his weasel Louis in “Brighten Up,” it was far funnier to think about a mild mannered college professor who boasted his discovery of “psychodynamism” provided him with the ability to “flatten anything on Earth from the Great Wall of China to Joe Louis.”
If the purpose of the absurdity of “Brighten Up” could be lost in the story’s overall tone, Vonnegut makes certain that “Barnhouse” feels light and weirdly funny. As he keeps it in the first person with the narrator actually revealed as Barnhouse’s latest grad student, Vonnegut sets everything into motion. The Professor disappears a year and a half previous and the narrator has been tasked with writing about his research.
All along, the narrator wisely shares in your disbelief but never underestimates Barnhouse’s power (“By my calculations, the professor was fifty-five times more powerful than a Nagasaki-type atomic bomb”). The story stays a lot more fanciful than you would expect. As the narrator pieces together his time with the professor and the events he witnessed, we somehow move from Private Barnhouse cleaning out the barracks by controlling the dice he rolls to two measured radio blasts of “the Barnhouse effect” leaving “ships’ guns curved downward, their muzzles resting on the steel decks.”
With that, the secret weapon that is Professor Barnhouse disappears. Vonnegut allows the legend to grow. He is seen in Paris or the Inca Ruins. He is reported dead six times. They are left to theorize how much longer he will live. Strikingly, while they search for him, there are no real acts of war. In fact, it is almost as if without their secret weapon there can be no war.
Did the professor figure this out before the Armed Forces and simply disappear? Is he still controlling events from afar having found newer methods of delivering his psychodynamic power? Vonnegut allows the questions to mount. Since it seems like a fable, the tendency of fantasy takes away from the horrors of war (perhaps what he was trying the hardest to do in “Brighten Up”). Even more impressive is how Vonnegut has learned to control his narrative. “Barnhouse” may end as it began, but his Richard Matheson-esque twist leads to reading the story yet again.
After all Vonnegut’s success as a short story writer, shockingly, by 1965 none of his original works remained in print. A world built around the consumption of stories in magazines evolved into one openly devouring television. So in just fifteen years of writing, Vonnegut thought his time was over. Taking a job teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1965, Vonnegut won a Guggenheim fellowship. He used this stipend to go to Germany and study. His return to find Dresden still in ruins would finally inspire the composition of work he had long pursued. After nearly throwing in the towel, Vonnegut’s greatest work was coming to change lives.
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe in Hattiesburg.