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Cover of first edition (hardcover)
|Media type||Print (hardcover and paperback)|
Jailbird is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, originally published in 1979; it has come to be known as "his Watergate novel". The plot involves elements ranging from labor movement of the early 20th century to the Nixon Whitehouse, and revolves around Walter F. Starbuck, a man recently released from a low security prison after having served time for a minor role in the Watergate scandal. It is written in a standard memoir format, revealing Starbuck's current situation, then going back to tell the story of his first two days after being released from prison.
Through Walter F. Starbuck and near-rambling biographical sketches of the various characters referenced in the novel, Jailbird concerns itself with the history of the American labor movement, while also pointing out flaws in corporate America, the American political system, the American Red Scare of the late 1950s, and both capitalist and communist theory.
This novel introduces Vonnegut's fictitious megacorporation, RAMJAC, which he says owned 19% of all business in the United States at its peak. Throughout the novel, whenever a business is mentioned, Vonnegut frequently mentions RAMJAC in a parenthetical comment, such as "Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company (A RAMJAC Corporation)". RAMJAC may have been Vonnegut's response to megacorporation television ads common around the time of the novel's publication, in which they would detail the many familiar brand names under their corporate wing.
Jailbird also features a brief appearance of Kilgore Trout, a recurring Vonnegut character who writes science fiction novels and stories. However in this appearance, "Kilgore Trout" is revealed to be the pseudonym of a character in prison, deliberately contradicting the autobiographical details of Trout's life as delineated in both earlier and subsequent Vonnegut novels.
Literary significance and reception
'Jailbird definitely mounts up on angelic wings – in its speed, in its sparkle, and in its high-flying intent. A profoundly humane comedy.' – Chicago Tribune Book World
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