the Dell paperback cover of Vonnegut's Mother Night

Mother Night

  • Author:  Kurt Vonnegut  (1922  –  2007)
  • Rank:  #37
  • Published:  1961
  • Publisher:  Fawcett
  • Pages:  192
  • First Line:  “My name is Howard W. Campbell, Jr.”
  • Last Line:  “Auf wiedersehen?
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Film:  1996  (***.5 – dir. Keith Gordon)
  • First Read:  September, 1994

The Novel:  In some ways, Mother Night is the book through which you should be introduced to Vonnegut.  It has all the odd humor of a Vonnegut book, the strange plot twists, the bizarre narration, the wondrous mix of bizarre fantasy with the starkest reality.  But it is also the most structured of his books.  In some ways, Vonnegut is the wrong author for younger readers, because they take his style and they try to appropriate it.  But his style only works for him and anyone attempting to write like Vonnegut ends up with horrible prose and needs to be taught to start over.  Mother Night doesn’t inspire such flights of fancy as Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five, yet it has a greatness on that level.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”  That is the moral of the story – which alone tells you the uniqueness of Vonnegut, for he not only knows that it has a moral but he flat out tells us what it is.  It is easy to see how the world is in this novel, how we all believe that we are on the side of right.  As one character says, “Everybody else, no matter what side he was on, no matter what he did, is sure a good man could not have acted in any other way.”  We think that what we do is right, that if things were not right, then we would act.  But it is so easy not to act – to be part of what else goes on.  Even if we don’t pretend, even if we really believe it.  It is said that evil is when bad things happen and good men do nothing.  But in the novel, we are presented with another view: “Where’s evil?  It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side.”

There is a simple story here.  There is Howard Campbell, a man asked to be an American spy, who stays in Berlin after the war begins and goes to work for the Nazi propaganda machine.  It is true that he gives a good deal of useful information to the War Department and that he probably saves a lot of lives, but he unquestionably contributes to the deaths of many more.  Then, rescued from death at the end of the war, he disappears into the melting pot of New York, and through a plot of Vonnegutian machinations, ends up alone and surrendering himself to the Israelis to be tried as a war criminal.  We might ask why he would do such a thing, but we have already been told ” ‘All people are insane,’ he said, ‘They will do anything at any time and God help anybody who looks for reasons.’ ”

There is more here than we a realize on a first reading.  There is more this simple story.  As we look again, we see the depths, understand what Vonnegut means when he says that he probably would have been a Nazi had he been living in Germany when the war began.  We can remember the phrase “the banality of evil” at the same time that we understand the cost of crimes against yourself.  After all, I write this words in Boston in the middle of the hype surrounding the arrest of Whitey Bulger and I think of the FBI agents who allowed him to run rampage because they wanted to get rid of the Italian mobs in the North End.  What crimes against themselves did those agents commit?

” ‘I don’t admire suicide,’ said Wirtanen.  ‘I admire form,’ I said,  ‘I admire things with a beginning, a middle, an end – and, whenever possible, a moral, too.’ ”  We see that bit of dialogue half way through, but we get a better understanding what this means as we enter the final pages.  It leads perfectly towards the only ending that can possibly do the story any justice.  There is a beginning, a middle, and of course, there will be an end.  And we get the moral too, of course.  So, do we find sadness in this paragraph, or only just release?

“They say that a hanged man hears gorgeous music.  Too bad that I, like my father, unlike my musical mother, am tone-deaf.  All the same, I hope that the tune I am about to hear is not Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas.’ ”

the film poster for the 1996 film version of Mother Night

The Film:  The best evidence that Mother Night is unlike any other Vonnegut novel is that a first-rate film was made out of it.  Slaughterhouse-Five was never particularly successful as a film because of all its flights of fancy as a novel and Breakfast of Champions was just a damned mess.  But Mother Night, anchored by one of the best performances of Nick Nolte’s career does a solid job of sticking with the novel and making a strong, coherent film.

I remember going to see it in the theater.  You don’t, of course, because not many people other than me saw it in the theater.  It grossed just over $400,000 and finished in 237th place in the box office for 1996.  But I went to see it at the Lloyd Center in November of 1996 the same day I also saw Twelfth Night in the same theater (you didn’t see that either – that finished 223rd and made just under $600,000).  It was the first time I had seen anything from a Vonnegut work and I was pleased to see that one of his best books could translate so well to the screen.  Vonnegut himself, seemed to give his stamp of approval, I remember thinking, as I recognized him there in a scene late in the film.

At that point, Nolte, playing Howard Campbell, is standing stock still in the middle of a street in New York.  His life has lead him here and he has no reason to move in any direction.  What’s more, we have seen all the reasons he would have had disappear before his eyes and we can look at his face, look at those sad eyes and understand why he can’t bring himself to move.

I don’t remember if the moral is spoken aloud in the film.  But it is easy to see the look develop in Nolte’s eyes when his father-in-law explains to him that he never could have been as useful as a spy as he was as a propagandist.  He learns that important lesson that we are who we pretend to be.  When we lead up to that final death scene, it is not a tragedy unfolding.  It is the natural development and Nolte’s performance has absolutely lead us there with no questions asked.

The rest of the cast is strong as well – John Goodman, Kirsten Dunst, Alan Arkin, all ably directed by Keith Gordon (a nice connection there – in Back to School, Keith Gordon plays Rodney Dangerfield’s son and Dangerfield hires Vonnegut himself to write a paper on himself and the paper receives an F).  It earned absolutely no attention at awards time because no one had seen it.  Which is a shame, because it really did deserve some attention.