Kurt Vonnegut's novel about a man, born rich and powerful, who tries to devote his life to helping any poor sod who seems in need of his help (usually by giving them money.) His family, his wife, and eventually the forces of mental health regard this crippling lack of greed as insanity and try valiantly to cure him of it.

At one point, Rosewater is asked by someone he's helped to baptise two babies. This is what he says to them:

"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."

In my opinion, this is a story about Jesus, who was somewhat of a Vonnegut topic. The main character, Eliot Rosewater, is an intensely altruistic figure who devotes his life to helping the less fortunate. Although he could obviously have great power, he chooses to live his life in a hotbed of sin and vice known as Rosewater County. It is apparent that his people endow him with almost messianic qualities and expect him to remain with them forever. However, under repeated criticism and attempted exploitation by his lawyers, he is eventually removed and put in a mental hospital.

Other similarities suggest themselves, too: at the close of the book, Eliot declares all children of Rosewater County to be his legal children, mirroring the statement that "we are all Christ's children." One (unseen) character in the book is Mary Moody, a probable prostitute who claims her children to be Eliot's as well. And Eliot (who, incidentally, claims not to be religious) is called on to baptise the children at one point. Near his "crucifixion", Eliot experiences an Armageddon-like hallucination. Even Eliot's name, Rosewater, has mystical overtones and could be taken as alluding to wine or blood. Finally, Kilgore Trout claims that he shaved off his beard when he got his job because of the "sacrilege of a Jesus figure redeeming stamps." This shows that Vonnegut had something of Christ and sacrilege in mind during the novel's writing.

In my opinion at least, Vonnegut's goal here was to reintroduce Christian ideas from a more modern (his modern) perspective. The similarities between Rosewater and Jesus are obviously there, and so it is surprising that, despite Vonnegut's cynicism, he included so many respectful religious references in the novel. Perhaps his cynicism was, this time, not directed at Jesus himself, but at the public's reception of him. This point remains open.

What else is this novel supposed to show us? Aside from Vonnegut's usual character-interaction subplots, there is a marked difference between rich and poor. Although both often seem foolish and wanton, the author is clearly calling the reader's attention to class distinctions. There is also a discussion of conservatism vs. socialism -- Eliot persists in foolishly giving his money to the poor and thus "squandering" his father's fortunes. However, when Eliot is put in an expensive sanatorium, his father realizes that his old lifestyle in fact cost less.

It is finally worth mentioning that, like Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater often has cameos in other Vonnegut books. For example, Billy Pilgrim meets him in a hospital in Slaugherhouse Five, and he funds the fateful art convention in Breakfast of Champions. However, these appearances do not support the themes addressed in this novel, but only serve to advance the plot.

Of the works produced in Kurt Vonnegut's prime, (running from Sirens of Titan in 1959 to Slaughterhouse-5 in 1969), God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater is one of the less well known, and unlike most of the others, fairly linear and realistic in its plot devices. Along with Mother Night, it contains no overt science fiction themes. It is, for Vonnegut, a rather modest undertaking.

It is hard to tell with Vonnegut's work, because some things come up in every book, but many of the other themes that are important in Vonnegut's work are merely cameos in this book. The horror of World War II and the firebombing of Dresden make an appearance. Depression, suicide, alcoholism and people's various means of coping with their own grotesqueness also appear. And the presence of a clan of the ultra rich is as important here as it is in Sirens of Titan. But none of those things seems to be the theme of the book. The theme of the book actually is closest to that of Vonnegut's first work, Player Piano, which is what the value in normal, unsuccessful Americans after automation has made them economically useless. It is this question which drives the novel.

And it is because of the realism of this question that most of the book can take place in Rosewater County, Indiana, rather than in another galaxy. The portrayals of people and their problems, while given in a typical Vonnegut style, are fairly believable. It would make for a fairly boring story for those who aren't fond of Vonnegut's tangential, anecdotal writing style. Eliot Rosewater, a heir to a gigantic fortune, undergoes a mental breakdown and heads home to Indiana, where he sits in a dilapidated office and answers a crisis line where he cheers up losers and fools. It is the value he finds in interacting with people that makes up the core of the book, with the plot and even the social commentary coming behind that. Although the denunciation of inherited wealth and what it does to people is cutting, it is not the primary question. The devaluing of people can take place in any economic system, and the fact that some people are, through blind fortune, allowed to feel worthwhile about themselves is just used to highlight the point of what value anyone can truly claim to have in American society.

One aspect of the book that is underexplored is how Vonnegut feels about Rosewater, and whether Vonnegut is criticizing Rosewater, and whether if Vonnegut is not criticizing Rosewater, whether he should be. Despite the book's comments on class, the poor people that Rosewater helps are described as somewhat ridiculous and unimprovable. Rosewater tosses out help to them in a patronizing fashion, but doesn't actually change their conditions. Rosewater could also be seen as a narcissistic alcoholic who uses his money to live out a fantasy of being a Messiah. I don't know if Vonnegut fully treated these themes because Vonnegut himself, at the time of the novel's writing, could be seen to be in a similar situation, with enough popular success that he was dispensing amelioration to the peasants without being compelled to live amongst them. Vonnegut could be seen to be like Rosewater, bitter and self-righteous without having any actual solutions to give. It is also, if I can inject my own biography into this, where I find myself now.

Be that as it may, I think that Vonnegut's continued popularity is his ability to raise sharp, cutting questions, and this book certainly does so. It is also, like all of Vonnegut's books, very easy to read, and can be gotten through in a short afternoon. I suggest that those who haven't read it already make plans to do so.

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