This Christmas break I read Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick. The novel, like many of Vonnegut’s work is dark and wickedly funny. This one, however, majored on the former. The protagonist, Kurt Waltz, commits an accidental double manslaughter as a teen. He spends the rest of his life in a state of regret and penance. The resulting lawsuit ruins his wealthy parents, so he spends decades working as their private servant and cook. Eventually, he moves to Haiti, where he lives as an expatriate. He’s so traumatized by the events that he’s apparently unwilling to experience the pleasure of his own sexuality. He describes himself as “a neuter”, being neither “male” nor “female.”
It takes decades, and the willingness of another to publicly name him as something other than Deadeye Dick, the derisive nickname he picked up after his accidental assassination. Only then is he able to come to terms with the sins of his youth and begin living. The tragedy of the whole thing is that he wasted so many years being unwilling to let himself live.
As the novel winds down, this idea of living like you’ve outlived your story is revisit in end-of-life issues with his mother when a relatively minor incident causes her to not want to go on. An older and wiser Kurt comments:
“What part of her life,” you might ask, “was story, and what part was epilogue?” I think that her case was similar to Father’s, in that, by the time my brother and I came along, there was nothing life but epilogue. The circumstances of her early life decreed that she only live a pipsqueak story, which was over only a few moments after it had begun. She had nothing to atone for, for example, since she was never tempted to anything bad in the first place, And she wasn’t going to go seeking any kind of Holy Grail, since that was clearly a man’s job, and she already had a cup that overflowed and overflowed with good things to eat and drink anyway.
“I suppose that’s really what so many American women are complaining about these days: They find their lives short on story and overburdened with epilogue.
“Mother’s story ended when she married the handsomest rich man in town.”
Here are two tragedies: Kurt allowed his story to end when he was confronted with calamity, and Mother’s ended with success, leaving nothing left in their lives, but to grind out a long, meaningless epilogue.
I’ve seen some wins and failures in my adult life and personally, I’ve been tempted to allow each to mark the end of my story. Wins lie by telling you that you’ve arrived. Failure lies by telling you that you’re too unworthy to experience another win.
‘Tis the season to write New Year’s Resolutions and to commit to self-improvement. Can I make a suggestion? Do it in a way that keeps your story in front of you, where it can be your engine and not your anchor.
Here’s some resources to get you started. First, visit storylineblog.com. Don Miller’s work has been very influential to me and he’s created a brilliant model for scripting and editing your life into a meaningful story. If you really want to commit, create a free account at mysubplot.com. Here’s my profile if you want to take a peak at what I’m working on.