The Hebrew Bible is big on prophets and big on sin.
There are four major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. And a dozen minor prophets who wrote shorter books of only a few chapters or, in the case of Obadiah, just 600 words. Long- or short-winded, though, these prophets spent their time berating the Jews for failing to live righteous lives and failing to live up to their covenant with God. Their message: Stop sinning, straighten up and fly right.
Americans, for the most part, have never been big letting someone harangue them about their sins. Or, for that matter, admitting that they have any sins to be harangued about.
So, how does a modern prophet tell Americans that things are going to hell in a handbasket?
Kurt Vonnegut employed a useful strategy in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls before Swine. He made a joke of it.
“A flamboyantly sick man”
Eliot Rosewater — known to his lawyers as The Nut and The Saint and The Holly Roller and John the Baptist — is obviously crazy, as Vonnegut’s 1965 novel opens.
The child of a fabulously rich U.S. Senator and offspring of a family that has long been fabulously rich, Eliot was having a fine life, recognized as an expert sailor in yacht races off Cape Cod and not a bad skier during winter vacations in Switzerland. Then, on December 8, 1941, he left Harvard Law School to enlist in the U.S. Army.
After the war, Eliot took over the presidency of the family’s fabulously wealthy Foundation and dispensed money here and there to a wide range of needy organizations such as those encouraging birth control, reducing racism, combatting police brutality, treating mental illness and promoting art, such as a museum in Tampa, Florida, to which he gave an El Greco.
He also drank heavily. And began to change.
One day, drunk, he crashed a convention of science-fiction writers in Milford, Pennsylvania, where he praised them for grappling with big ideas and noted that no one had ever written science-fiction about money.
“Look at the powers of an Earthling millionaire! Look at me! I was born naked, just like you, but by God, friends and neighbors, I have thousands of dollars a day to spend!…I leave it to you…[to] think about the silly ways money gets passed around now, and then think up better ways.”
And it wasn’t just such writers that he liked. He was also a big fan of volunteer firemen who, it seemed to him, were the only people who acted without greed. In fact, he took to trading his rich clothing to such firefighters in exchange for their more mundane duds.
And Eliot eventually traded away everything in his wardrobe but his tails, his dinner jacket, and one gray flannel suit. His sixteen-foot closet became a depressing museum of coveralls, overalls, Robert Hall Easter specials, field jackets, Eisenhower jackets, sweatshirts and so on….
Eliot was a flamboyantly sick man…
“Care about these people”
And he got even sicker.
When the wandering Eliot finally settled, it was in the town and area and state that his fabulously wealthy family had controlled since the Civil War. His Parisian wife Sylvia told him to come home to New York, but he said:
“I am home. I know now that this has always been home — the Town of Rosewater, the Township of Rosewater, the County of Rosewater, the State of Indiana.”
“But what do you intend to do there, Eliot?
“I’m going to care about these people….”
“Love these discarded Americans”
Talk about crazy, right? Rich people give money to other people to care about the people who need to be cared about. That’s the way it works.
Not for Eliot, as he told Sylvia:
“I look at these people, these Americans, and I realize that they can’t even care about themselves any more — because they have no use. The factory, the farms, the mines across the river — they’re almost automatic now. And America doesn’t even need these people for war — not any more, Sylvia — I’m going to be an artist.”
“I’m going to love these discarded Americans, even though they’re useless and unattractive. That is going to be my work of art.”
In Rosewater, Eliot had a special phone for calls to the Foundation, and he answered it: “This is the Rosewater Foundation. How can we help you?”
“You sound crazy”
And, basically, when someone called, Eliot listened to what the person had to say and gave the person what the person wanted if he could arrange it.
Sometimes, though, he had to work out what the person wanted, such as the time he got a call from a man in a phone booth with one of the black and yellow stickers that Eliot had had placed all over the county: “Don’t Kill Yourself. Call the Rosewater Foundation.” When Eliot answered, the man said,
“You know what somebody’s written right under that in pencil? Eliot Rosewater is a saint. He’ll give you love and money. If you’d rather have the best piece of tail in southern Indiana, call Melissa.”
Eliot asked the man if he was thinking of taking his life and what he could do to convince him not to. And the man cagily asked: “What would you do?” Eliot responded that he’d ask him to name his rock-bottom price to go on living for one more week.
“You sound crazy.”
“You’re the one who wants to kill himself.”
“What if I said I wouldn’t live through the next week for a million dollars?”
Eliot negotiated him down to a hundred. “Now you’re making sense. Come on over and talk.”
“The Money River”
Talk about crazy.
In America, the point of having money, as Vonnegut’s humorous story explains, is to avoid having to deal directly with people who are unattractive or uneducated or uninteresting or unwealthy or useless. And to avoid having to think.
As Eliot told his father, every member of their fabulously rich family, like those of other such families, was born on the banks of the Money River:
“We can slurp from that mighty river to our hearts’ content. And we even take slurping lessons, so we can slurp more efficiently.”
“From lawyers! From tax consultants! From customers’ men! We’re born close enough to the river to drown ourselves and the next ten generations in wealth, simply using dippers and buckets. But we still hire the experts to teach us the use of aqueducts, dams, reservoirs, siphons, bucket brigades, and the Archimedes’ screw. And our teachers in turn become rich, and their children become buyers of lessons in slurping.”
“No more apologies!”
Eliot was so clearly and obviously crazy that a young ambitious, rapacious lawyer named Norman Mushari schemed to take all of his money away from him and move it over to his cousin, Fred Rosewater, with a suitable slice of the pie for Norman himself.
For the longest time, Fred, an insurance salesmen of no great affluence, didn’t know about these machinations, but, just before he found out, he got to the point that, as he told his wife, he’d come to accept his poverty:
“No more apologies! So we’re poor! All right, we’re poor! This is America! And America is one place in this sorry world where people shouldn’t have to apologize for being poor. The question in America should be, ‘Is this guy a good citizen? Is he honest? Does he pull his own weight?’ ”
So, Eliot’s not the only crazy one. So is Fred.
After all, this is a country where people lavish attention and admiration and status to those with money. And those without? They’re untouchables, like in India.
“Humor and outrageousness”
If there is an American Bible in some future era, maybe God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls before Swine will find a place as part of the canon.
Instead of haranguing, instead of shouting down fire and brimstone, Vonnegut with this book — a novel that mirrors civilized life down through the previous millenniums of history and forecasts how life in today’s America is — was a prophet using humor and outrageousness to make his moral points.
Everything Eliot does is crazy, unless it isn’t. Everything he says is crazy, unless it isn’t.
Eliot and his cousin Fred are truth-tellers in a society that doesn’t want to be told the truth.
If the reader laughs at Eliot and Fred, it’s not because of the irrationality of what they say and do. It’s because of their clear and evident rationality.
“Only one rule”
This is a prophet’s novel.
Eliot tells Sylvia that one of his Rosewater County clients has asked him to baptize her twins.
“I told her that I wasn’t a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. I told her nothing I did would count in Heaven, but she insisted just the same….”
“What will you say? What will you do?…
“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkle some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth….At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know if, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ ”
What a crazy rule. What if everyone followed it?
Patrick T. Reardon