Eliot the eccentric, born of a good family and centuries of ostensibly good breeding... is as mad as a hatter. And, come to find out, in true Vonnegut fashion, the root of his ills was that which plagued Good Kurt himself: PTSD. In the War, Captain Rosewater finds that instead of killing three Germans with a grenade and one with a bayonet to the throat, he has killed three firemen attempting to stop a Bavarian clarinet factory from going up in smoke, two old men, and a boy (the last with the bayonet), not more than fourteen. Captain Rosewater there and then attempted to kill himself by laying down in front of a truck, but, saved by his own men, became catatonic and was shipped off to Paris for treatment.
Captain Rosewater recovers, somewhat, but is clearly permanently altered by the vicissitudes of fortune. "Cure" is relative, but, after his discharge from a Paris madhouse, it was said of him, "I want you to meet the only American who has so far noticed the Second World War."
This traumatic event, which he keeps replaying throughout his life, is what induces him to visit firehouses and to extol the heroism and virtues of volunteer firemen (he had been made an honorary one as a child, in perfect irony) in far-flung towns scattered throughout Flyover America. Eliot, it seems, has also taken to drink. His cultured, sophisticated, albeit long-suffering wife, herself falling victim to multiple breakdowns over the years, and his overbearing father, can't figure what to do with him. Eliot leaves the family mansion, to move to a humble town in Rosewater County, which bears his name. The family, as it turns out, has their fingers in a lot of pies, not wanting to rely on others to support their hog raising enterprise, with the result that they own mines, banks, and a litany of other related businesses and interests which has enriched the entire family for generations. Until Eliot, an only child, comes along. Hilarity and farce ensue... but in the form of scathing social commentary.
This novel is more interwoven than many of Kurt's others, but it, too is a capable statement on the human condition: pearls before swine refers to the poor, hardworking underclass (the pearls) at the mercy of their profligate social (non) betters (the swine, the real villains in this story). Along with the rich, who jealously guard their hordes even from other family members, are their parasitic sycophants and orbiters, including a scheming little attorney who means to pocket a large slice of the Rosewaters' fortune, vis a vis an ignorant extended relative, on account of Eliot's manifest madness. At least Eliot's orbiters are the people who actually generate his wealth: he aims to help them in the only way he thinks he can, which doesn't really amount to much, clueless as he is, by paying their bills ala his phone booth foundation, advertised by stickers with the admonition: 'Don't Kill Yourself... Call the Rosewater Foundation.'
The other half of the story is the tale of the "Rhode Island Rosewaters," shirt tale relatives with a sordid past all their own, and a portfolio of their own misadventures. Cut out of the family fortune, one may see his fortunes change, but not necessarily for the better.
In short, this, as with Kurt's other novels, is a concise and incising statement on the human condition, on modernity, on the disparity between rich and poor (noting that there isn't really much difference between them: the rich are just as vile, base and banal as their less wealthy counterparts, involved in smut peddling - promulgated by a filthy-rich thirteen year-old-girl, in one case - and all manner of perversion. No person, man, woman or child, it seems, is immune. No animals are actually more equal than others, in Kurt's dystopic world, which he always does an admirable job of creating at the outset (it makes the characters all the more despicable and farcical). Capably written, it's engaging, depressing, and hilarious. The only thing that made it hard to get through was the frequency of the side-splitting laughter it induces; it's definitely one of his more humorous ones, replete with priceless one-liners, some of my favorites I've included below.
This, as with most other Vonnegut masterpieces, is not for the faint of heart: it's written in a language most do not know, and painted with colors they cannot see.
PS: What am I, but your creation, big Daddy.
I hope you're proud of yourself.
"None of you can write for sour apples... but you're the only people trying to come to terms with the really terrific things which are happening today."
"The hell with the talented sparrowfarts who write delicately of one small piece of one mere lifetime, when the issues are galaxies, eons, and trillions of souls yet to be born."
"I am fascinated by the fact that both a carrot and a stick can make a donkey go, and that his Space Age discovery may have some application in the world of human beings."
"Every time I'm forced to look at him, I think to myself, ' what a staging area for a typhoid epidemic!'"
"Nothing nice ever happened to me. How could it? I was behind the door when the good Lord passed out the brains."
"This young captain I'm bringing home - he despises art. Can you imagine? Despises it - and yet he does it in such a way that I can't help loving him for it. What he's saying, I think, is that art has failed him, which, I must admit, is a very fair thing for a man who has bayoneted a fourteen-year-old boy in the line of duty to say."
"[Love} was a perfectly good word, until Eliot got hold of it. It's spoiled for me now. Eliot did to the word love what the Russians did to the word democracy. If Eliot is going to love everybody, no matter what they are, no matter what they do, then those of us who love particular people for particular reasons had better find ourselves a new word." He looked up at an oil painting of his deceased wife. "For instance - I love her more than I loved our garbage collector, which makes me guilty of the most unspeakable of modern crimes: DIS-CRIM-I-NAY-TION."
"The most exquisite pleasure in the practice of medicine comes from nudging a layman in the direction of terror, then bringing him back to safety again."
"There's this big black and yellow sticker in the phone booth. Says, 'Don't Kill Yourself... Call the Rosewater Foundation.' ... Eliot Rosewater is a saint. He'll give you love and money. If you'd rather have the best piece of ass in southern Indiana, call Melissa."
"No more apologies! So we're poor! All right, we're poor! This is America! And America is one place in this sorry world where people shouldn't have to apologize for being poor. The question in America should be, 'Is this guy a good citizen? Is he honest? Does he pull his own weight?'"
"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth.
It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
It's round and wet and crowded.
At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here.
There's only one rule that I know of, babiesâ
God damn it, you've got to be kind."