Thirteen years before the publication of Cat's Cradle, a 27-year-old Kurt Vonnegut wrote the dark, devilish novella, Basic Training, under the pseudonym of Mark Harvey--that foreshadows the novelist's powerfully anti-authoritarian world view. Never before published, it appears for the first time as an exclusive Kindle Single.
Here, writer Barry Malzberg describes its genesis:
This novella is a find, a work of anti-mythology disguised as a family memoir. Vonnegut doubtless intended it for Colliers or The Saturday Evening Post, the slick magazines which represented the apogee of the market and Vonnegut’s own desire in the late 1940s and early 50s. The work failed to sell and lay in Vonnegut’s trunk for 60 years. Here it is now, fresh and gleaming, fierce in its observation and as deadpan a demolition of the American authoritarian myth as anything he later produced. Everything old is new again.
Vonnegut was about 30 when he wrote this novella. In a long filmed interview with Eric Solstein in 1999 for Solstein’s documentary Trout, Vonnegut said “I was making a hundred a week and GE was paying for our health insurance, our pensions. One day a check came [for a short story] from The Saturday Evening Post for $700. I said to my wife, ‘This is very interesting.’”
The story seems autobiographical—too deliberate to be fully invented. The details are too precise and the insanity of the “General” who stands at its center too scattered and yet deliberate. Mark Vonnegut, the author’s son, confirms this, noting that “The pseudonym under which Basic Training was written is probably a conflation of my name and Harvey Cox, my mother’s father. It was great fun to read Kurt’s early version of his take on the military and heroism. There’s fantastic language throughout and a very mature voice for someone not quite thirty. The women and the General were, if anything, more fully drawn and human than characters in later [novels].” Another letter, from Vonnegut’s daughter Nanny confirms the personal nature of this story. The adolescent Kurt spent a summer on a farm near Indianapolis where Vonnegut grew up, administered rather brutally by a family friend who called himself the “Captain”. There was even quite a difficult stallion on the farm. And further like the protagonist of Basic Training, Vonnegut enjoyed playing the piano as a young man.
The lunacy of the “General” (Vonnegut obviously felt a promotion was in order) lays over the events of this story as thoroughly and convincingly as the madness of Campbell or Rosewater in Vonnegut’s later novels. Hope, the object of the hapless protagonist’s adoration in Basic Training is an embryonic Montana Wildhack, Billy Pilgrim’s sidekick in Slaughterhouse-Five. All of Vonnegut’s central concerns—the madness of Kings, the improbability of existence, the contingent and transient nature of all known experience except the purest of love—are clearly demonstrated and enacted through these 20,000 words. Vonnegut’s work suggests that flight is the only humane manner of dealing with madness… but where does one flee? The General is everywhere, and the General seems to almost every outsider he encounters so utterly “reasonable”.
At the heart of this novella, as at the heart of all Vonnegut’s work, is a simple and terrible acceptance. Heigh-ho. So it goes. Onward. The General has a secret and that secret, revealed at last, can be traced through another fifty years of Vonnegut’s writing to capture us yet again today and tomorrow.
Photo: Kurt Vonnegut, his wife Jane and his daughter Nanny, courtesy of Nanny Vonnegut.