This is a very American book. Eliot Rosewater, a former socialite and the son of a senator, decides to live his life as an altruistic servant of the ordinary people in the aptly named Rosewater County. He’s an alcoholic, his wife doesn’t want him anymore, and he is mentally insane, yet Vonnegut makes us love him as a near-perfect person. At the same time, Vonnegut contrasts Eliot’s calm demeanor and prodigal generosity with a harsh depiction of just about everyone else in the book. Mushari is a weasel, Senator Rosewater is a right wing nut, Diana Moon Glampers is “ugly, stupid, and boring”. Not to mention the fifty-seven mothers of Eliot’s children.
And it is this set of contradictions that make the book tick. Eliot’s foundation pays for a rape victim’s medical bills, but also supplies the rapist with “the best Indianna lawyer that money could buy”. He talks of a brilliantly poignant “Money River” that fuels American inequality today, yet we get a snippet of his own bizarre and incomprehensible novel that only a crazy person could write. And his love for sci-fi and Hamlet is overshadowed by his favorite poem, a funny little bit written in a bathroom stall.
We don’t piss in your ashtrays,
So please don’t throw cigarettes in our urinals.
So what to make of Eliot? Why do I still find him honest, and a much better person than me? Eliot says he does all of this in the name of “art”. Is that something to be proud of him for doing? Questions like this may, in fact, be answerable, but I feel they will have to sit with me for awhile.
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. (page 102)
Old men without hope have a tendency to be both crude and accurate. (page 67)
Many, many good things have I bought!
Many, many bad things have I fought! (page 17)
I’m going to love these discarded Americans, even though they’re useless and unattractive. That is going to be my work of art. (page 44)