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God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Dell Publishing, 1965, 190 pp.

J. is a huge Vonnegut fan, and we got to talking about this book’s setting in southern Indiana. I’ve read a few of Vonnegut’s novels, and I enjoy their mix of dark subjects with light (almost flip) style, a mocking tone that ridicules injustice. Having lived in southern Indiana now for more than six years, I was eager to hear Vonnegut’s take on his home state.

Vonnegut’s novel tells the story of Eliot Rosewater, the son of fictional Senator Lister Ames Rosewater of Indiana. He is the President of the Rosewater Foundation (his father’s money), and spends his life giving away the Foundation’s money to anyone and everyone who might have a need. He is also a passionate volunteer firefighter. Eliot lives with intense capacity for compassion and love, seeing the need of each person who asks and responding without cynicism.

The plot of the story involves a lawyer, Norman Mushari, who believes he can make a lot of money if he forces the Foundation’s money to transfer hands from the eccentric Eliot to his closest relative, a distant cousin who does not know he is related to the Senator or the Foundation. In order to make this happen, he must prove that Eliot is insane. In the end, through Vonnegut’s twists and turns, the reader is convinced that Eliot is probably a sane man in an insane world.

As always, Vonnegut skewers with humor. Some of my favorites:

Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. … Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. (12)

Hard to believe that Vonnegut wrote that in 1965, and not in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. You could cut-and-paste it into a speech for the Occupy movement.

Later on, Eliot is fighting with his Senator father, who believes Eliot’s generosity is a terrible waste of money. Eliot replies with a brilliant screed about the disparity between rich and poor:

Nobody can work with the poor and not fall over Karl Marx from time to time—or just fall over the Bible, as far as that goes. I think that it’s terrible the way people don’t share things in this country. I think it’s a heartless government that will let one baby be born owning a big piece of the country, the way I was born, and let another baby be born without owning anything. The least a government could do, it seems to me, is to divide things up fairly among the babies. (87-88)

Eliot follows this with a powerful description of the “Money River,” which the wealthy can drink in repose until they are full beyond capacity—yet they still insist on damming up for themselves to acquire more. But you’ll have to read God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater yourself to enjoy that one.

Vonnegut’s portrayal of my neighbors here in this corner of Indiana was not flattering, but it was compassionate. His treatment of injustices between rich and poor, however, was ruthless—and I cheered it all the way. It’s maddening to realize that the problems Vonnegut mocked nearly 50 years ago have multiplied exponentially since then.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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