On Vonnegut’s Basic Training

basic training- kurt vonnegut

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by Leigh M. Lane

When I learned Kurt Vonnegut had a previously unreleased novella, one he had likely written very early in his career, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  While excited to read one of his earliest works, that I might compare it to his more polished prose, I was surprised to find not a trace of the fantastic.  Instead, Basic Training is a coming of age piece about a thirteen-year-old boy who has been displaced after the death of his adopted parents, a work that was clearly influenced by slice-of-life authors such as Salinger and Faulkner.

The novella has a slow start to it, relying heavily on dialog and adverb use, and the story arc also feels unstructured at first;  however, it quickly picks up to a good pace and progresses into a relatively good writing style with a surprisingly well crafted structure.

Vonnegut demonstrates his early literary aptitude in this story through his use of theme and name.  The farm, for example, is named Ardennes.  When protagonist Haley comments on this (Kindle location 115), his cousin Hope explains, “‘it’s in honor of a battle, just like everything else around here.’”  The farm’s proprietor, the protagonist’s uncle, is known only as the General, and he runs his farm like an Army camp: he divides labor by “squads”; he only allows cold showers; and daily chores and punishments are posted on a formally organized bulletin board.  The militaristic theme that runs throughout the story offers clear commentary on the strict and unwavering mindset one might find during times of war, which Vonnegut explores even more thoroughly in many of his later works.

Hope’s character deftly reflect Haley’s own personal sense of hope.  A beautiful example of this is when Haley finds himself in serious trouble: “He lived again his ignominious flight from the secret room on the loft, and his abandoning of Hope, and his spirits tumbled into depths of recrimination” (Kindle location 662-671).  Here, the play on words accentuates not only a sense of consequence for Haley’s actions, but truly mirrors the hopelessness he’s experiencing.  The General’s planned punishment for Hope to send her away to a boarding school reflects a moment in Haley’s life when all hope seems lost for good, and the retraction of said punishment comes when Haley feels a newfound sense of confidence and direction.

Vonnegut fans will find Basic Training to be vastly different than the majority of his other works, and yet stylistically there are glimpses of his better known prose throughout the story.  His simple attention to detail, his character descriptions, and his heavy sense of moral justice throughout the text shine through as very clearly Vonnegut, and yet the down-to-earth feel rings true to other influential authors of the time.  It is a charming piece, and although it will not appeal to all of his avid readers, it is sure to delight those who also enjoy the more literary works of the 1940s.  By no means a new favorite of mine, the story is entertaining and worthy of Vonnegut’s name.

leigh lane

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Leigh M. Lane lives in the beautiful mountains of Montana, where she writes speculative fiction that spans from sci-fi to horror.  She has written thirteen novels to date, all of which contain a gritty realism that hallmarks her unique voice.  She wrote her second novel, World-Mart, in mournful response to Kurt Vonnegut’s death, offering specific themes and undertones in the late author’s honor.  Leigh’s other influences include H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Clive Barker, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stephen King.  For more about Leigh M. Lane and her works, visit her website at http://www.cerebralwriter.com.


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