Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut

Bagombo Snuff Box

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Trade, 357 pages, 1999

Rating: 7/10

Reason for Reading: I found this one in the bargain section for five bucks and grabbed it since I really liked God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian.

Synopsis: Bagombo Snuff Box is a collection of twenty-three short stories dug up from Vonnegut’s career as a magazine writer in the 1950s. The collection largely works with themes such as war and the superficiality of society, while a dash of science fiction questions where technology will ultimately lead us.

Why you should read this book: Considering the topics he’s chosen, Vonnegut displays an unexpected sense of humour. One highlight is the recurring character of George M. Helmholtz, a high school band director that’s completely out of touch with reality and anything that doesn’t involve music and winning band competitions. Vonnegut gets across his points about a shallow society without hysterically slapping the reader across the face, managing to tell a story and not just a moral. There’s a good sense of the characters, but their descriptions never take away from the pace of the stories. Highlights include “Any Reasonable Offer,” “The Package,” “Poor Little Rich Town,” and “Lovers Anonymous.”

Why you should avoid this book: Vonnegut states in his introduction that there is no greatness in his collection, and while that may be true for the most part, his ‘pretty good’ surpasses a lot of authors’ moments of greatness. Still, for a decade’s worth of work, the themes are decidedly uncreative and repetitive even if the stories themselves vary widely. Vonnegut prides himself on not leaving the reader in the dark until the very end of a short story, which works for most of the stories, but sometimes leaves disappointingly little surprise in the ending.

Opening paragraph:

At noon, Wednesday, July 26th, windowpanes in the small mountain towns of Sevier County, Tennessee, were rattled by the shock and faint thunder of a distant explosion rolling down the northwest slopes of the Great Smokies. The explosion came from the general direction of the closely guarded Air Force experimental station in the forest ten miles northwest of Elkmont.

Fabulous quotes:

She was sitting at her dressing table, staring mercilessly at her image in the mirror, trying on different bits of jewelry. ‘Hmm?’
‘I said I guess Charley’s pretty impressed.’
Him, she said flatly. ‘He’s just a little too smooth, if you ask me. After the way he used to snoot you, and then he comes here all smiles and good manners.’
‘Yeah,’ said Earl, with a sigh. ‘Doggone it, he used to make me feel like two bits, and he still does, looking at us like we were showing off instead of just trying to help a magazine out. And did you hear what he said when I came right out and told him what I didn’t like about college?’
‘He acted like you just made it up, like it was just in your mind. Oh, he’s a slick article, all right. But I’m not going to let him get my goat,’ said Maude.

A coarse, formidable woman strode into the waiting room on spike heels. Her shoes, stockings, trench coat, bag, and overseas cap were all purple, a purple the painter called ‘the color of grapes on Judgment Day.’
The medallion on her purple musette bag was the seal of the Service Division of the Federal Bureau of Termination, an eagle perched on a turnstile.
The woman had a lot of facial hair – an unmistakable mustache, in fact. A curious thing about gas chamber hostesses was that no matter how lovely and feminine they were when recruited, they all sprouted mustaches within five years or so.
‘Is this where I’m supposed to come?’ she asked the painter.
‘A lot would depend on what your business was,’ he said. ‘You aren’t about to have a baby, are you?’
‘They told me I was supposed to pose for some picture,’ she said. ‘My name’s Leora Duncan.’ She waited.
‘And you dunk people,’ he said.
‘What?’ she said.
‘Skip it,’ he said.
‘That sure is a beautiful picture,’ she said. ‘Looks just like heaven or something.’
‘Or something,’ said the painter.

Also recommended: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde; Fifth Business by Robertson Davies.

Also by this author: A Man Without a Country; Piano Player; The Sirens of Titan; Mother Night; Cat’s Cradle; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; Slaughterhouse Five; Breakfast of Champions; Slapstick; Jailbird; Deadeye Dick; Galapagos; Bluebeard; Hocus Pocus; Timequake; Canary in a Cathouse; Welcome to the Monkey House; Happy Birthday, Wanda June; Fates Worse Than Death; God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian; Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons; Nothing is Lost Save Honor; Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage.

Author’s website: kurtvonnegut.com

Fun tidbit: A graphic artist as well as an author, Vonnegut was asked to participate in The Greatest Album Covers That Never Were, a collection of imagined designs for artists’ favourite groups. He chose the band Phish and created a cover called Hook Line and Sinker, which was placed in an exhibition for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007


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