Thursday, December 11, 2008

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)

The always wonderful JLowe gave me his copy of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or Pearls Before Swine (1965) by Kurt Vonnegut. It had been rescued from the bin behind Half Price Books, and doesn't have its cover, yet is still perfectly up to a re-reading.

I'm not sure when I read this last -- probably in high school, but possibly in college. I loved Vonnegut back then and tore through all his books multiple times. And he is an easy guy to tear through, with his short chapters and pastiche-style narratives. He is also an easy guy to get mixed up with himself. I remember reading all of Vonnegut's books, but little about what I thought of individual novels. So even though I don't remember how I felt about God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater when I first read it, I did really enjoy it this second (third? fourth?) time.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is the story of (as you might imagine) Mr. Rosewater. Actually two different Mr. Rosewaters. One, Eliot Rosewater, comes from a huge amount of money and has the non-responsibility of distributing large chunks of that money as president of the Rosewater Foundation. The other, his distant cousin Fred Rosewater, is a struggling insurance agent in Rhode Island who will inherit the Rosewater fortune if his lawyer can prove that Eliot is insane. And to his family, particularly his father, the Senator, Eliot does seem pretty insane. He left his big house and his fancy life in the city to live back in the town of Rosewater, Indiana. He is obsessed with volunteer firemen. He drinks constantly, sleeps in a dingy one-room apartment, and answers every phone call, any time of day or night, with "This is the Rosewater Foundation. How can we help you?" And then he does whatever he can to help the person on the other end of the phone.

He also has some words of wisdom. For a time he wrote the following in every men's room he visited:

If you would be unloved and forgotten, be reasonable.

And when asked to baptize some twins, even though he is not religious, he comes up with the following plan:

Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkle some water on the babies, say, "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, babies --: God damn it, you've got to be kind."

So, yeah, Eliot Rosewater probably is a little crazy. But in the nicest, most sane way possible. Just like Vonnegut, whose books manage to be cynical and naive and funny and heartbreaking all at once.

Now, who can I give this poor coverless book to? You know you want to read it...

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