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Young, foolish and unforgiving
In my student days I was a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut – I’m told the term used by his fans is a ‘Vonnenut’. I got hooked by the classic ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ and then worked my way through a load more. I thought Vonnegut was brilliant – right up to the point that I got tickets for a book reading he was due to do at Ottaker’s bookshop in Manchester. I was very excited by the prospect of actually seeing and meeting the man. Then I got the news that the session was cancelled – the great man refused to go anywhere outside London for such events. The respect built up over multiple books was slashed in an instant. Too snooty to head north meant my idol had feet of clay. Perhaps he hated rain and was allergic to Eccles Cakes, who knows, I was young and unforgiving. I didn’t buy another Vonnegut novel for over 20 years.
I’m sure my little personal embargo didn’t bother the great and now sadly ‘late’ man but for me it was an intriguing surprise when I read on Amazon that an early novella of Vonnegut’s had been found and published. Basic training is a mere 20 000 words in length and was on offer exclusively via Kindle for the grand sum of £1.96. I thought it had to be worth a punt.
‘Basic Training’ is the story Hayley Brandon, a teenage boy adopted and then orphaned by his adoptive parents. The novella opens with his arrival at a farm owned by his mother’s brother – a man known only as ‘The General’. The General rules his family of daughters – plain Annie, wild Kitty and pretty Hope - along military guidelines. He has processes and procedures, he puts announcements on the family ‘notice board’, he has rotas for the family and the farmhands and very strict ideas about how things should be done and how people should behave. “It’s the only way to get a lick of work out of anyone, organization is, according to the General”, Annie tells Hayley. The term ‘Basic Training’ would have been familiar to all at the time Vonnegut wrote this, referring to the training undertaken by military recruits.
Hayley is a talented pianist who planned to go to a conservatory before he lost his parents. The General says that he’ll support that ambition, but first Hayley needs to learn about hard work. He and the General’s pretty daughter Hope spend summer days baling hay with the mysterious farm hand Mr Banghart who takes a shine to Hayley because he likes music. We see there’s a dark side to Banghart – a mysterious man with a sharpened blade in his jacket and a secret hideout in the barn – but his biggest problem is he hates to be pushed around.
Inevitably the constraints the General places on his children lead to their determination to rebel, all except Annie who accepts the restrictions willingly. When the two younger daughters draw Hayley into a plot to help Kitty elope with her half-witted boyfriend, it’s clear that all concerned are sure to be punished and in Hayley’s case the punishment will be the destruction of his musical dream. Forced to then work even harder on the farm, he and Banghart have an accident which leads them to run away to Chicago for various unlikely-seeming adventures and an excellent opportunity to see just how bad life for the poor in post World War II American can be. After an episode of violence, Hayley returns to the farm but the family are on alert, watchful for the possible return of an avenging Banghart.
A long long time ago
As I mentioned at the beginning it’s been a long time since I last read Vonnegut and I struggled to see anything in this story that reminded me of my past reading. If you’d asked me blind to say which famous writer might have created this story I’d have been leaning towards it being an early J.D. Salinger or possibly a not very good bit of John Steinbeck. The setting is very Steinbeckian – with the depressed poor in the city (rather than the countryside) and the nasty Mr Banghart reading like one of his baddies. The Salinger angle comes from the young protagonist, left alone and trying to find his way.
It’s not a great book by a long way although it’s a quick easy read. It’s rather too short for much of a plot to develop and it does have a sense of still being a work in progress or something that’s so ‘politely’ written that it lacks the confidence for the author to just let rip and be himself. The plot twists are signalled a mile away and it’s pretty predictable but I didn’t dislike it for that. I don’t feel like I wasted the time I spent reading it but in many respects I’m glad it wasn’t longer as it didn’t seem to be going anywhere very significant.
It’s believed that Vonnegut wrote this in the late 1940s whilst he had a job with General Electric. He hawked it round the newspapers and magazines looking for a buyer but without success. The anger he felt at his wartime experience – which included being locked up in a POW camp – seems to be bubbling under the surface in the resentment of the characters to the General’s oppression. Banghart in particular is a seething cauldron of bitter anger just waiting to boil over. Does the General’s rule of iron and his dependence on structure and organisation hark back to Vonnegut’s time as a POW? Sadly we’ll never know as he’s no longer around to tell us.
Vonnegut was known as a fiercely intelligent and very funny writer but sadly not too much of that peeps out of the pages of Basic Training. There are apparently hundreds more unpublished Vonnegut works in his estate and I fear that many more will make it onto Kindle or into books. In some ways I think we should have more respect for dead writers and leave their work unpublished. I wouldn’t want anyone to buy this and think – as they inevitably would based on this – “Kurt Vonnegut? What was all the fuss about?” JD Salinger famously published nothing in the last 45 years of his life, saying he preferred to write for himself. On his death, speculation started that there could be 15 unpublished novels hidden away that might come to light. Personally I think an author’s wishes to not be published should hold sway in such times – would Vonnegut have wanted this third rate novella to top the Kindle sales lists? Wouldn’t Salinger prefer to be known for his iconic ‘Catcher in the Rye’ rather than having its memory diluted by books he chose not to offer the world.
I would suggest that Basic Training is a book for Vonnegut lovers who are willing to forgive their idol any of his youthful inadequacies in return for a fresh story. It’s certainly not a place to start reading this great writer and out of respect for the dead, we should read their poorer works in a sympathetic light and try not to let them colour our memories of their greater works.