(1982), a novel by American author Kurt Vonnegut, tells the story of Rudy Waltz, a Midwestern expatriate living in Port-au-Prince who is guilt-stricken over a tragic childhood accident that resulted in the death of a pregnant woman. Vonnegut's 10th book, Deadeye Dick
contains places and characters that tie it to the same universe as his 1973 novel, Breakfast of Champions
At the start of the narrative, Rudy Waltz is an eight-year-old boy living in the small Midwestern town of Midland, Ohio. An ardent gun enthusiast, Rudy's father demands that his son learn to clean and shoot every gun from his vast collection of antique weapons. His father also runs a pharmaceutical company which he inherited as a family business, although his true passion is painting. Despite repeatedly referring to himself as an artist, he has only ever finished one half of one painting many years ago before meeting Rudy's mother. Meanwhile, Rudy's very wealthy mother had been expected to marry a great man. Both Rudy's parents add little to society as they uselessly lounge around the house, unable to care for their children or themselves without a small army of servants. The last member of the Waltz family, Rudy's older brother Felix, a talented singer and announcer, is recruited by the military to read radio announcements.
At the age of 12, Rudy receives a key to the room where his father keeps his guns. The key is something of a rite of passage for Rudy into adulthood. His father believes Rudy will be responsible with the weapons because of the skill he shows at the gun range. That same day—Mother's Day—Rudy cleans an antique Springfield .30-06 rifle, the standard issue gun for the US military during World War II. As a symbolic goodbye to his youth, Rudy climbs to the top level of his family's barn with the gun and fires a shot over the town. The bullet enters the home of a young pregnant woman vacuuming, killing her and her unborn baby instantly.
In an act of misguided arrogance, Rudy's father believes that by making a dramatic confession, in which he expresses remorse over giving his son access to the guns, he will avoid jail time. Instead, both he and Rudy are charged and sent to jail for accidental manslaughter. After Rudy's father falls victim to a vicious beating, the police decide to keep Rudy away from the rest of the prison population. They do so not as an act of kindness but because they fear the bad publicity that would arise from allowing a 12-year-old boy to be injured or worse under their watch. Instead, they seek to humiliate Rudy by painting him with ink, locking him in a cage, and inviting the whole town to come to spit vitriol at the boy. Among those who raise objections to this display of humiliation is the pregnant woman's husband, Mr. Metzger.
After thoroughly degrading Rudy, the police decide to let him go while his father remains in prison to serve the duration of his sentence. Deeply traumatized—both by the act of manslaughter and the humiliation at the hands of the police—Rudy devotes his life to an ascetic existence in which he identifies as an asexual "neuter," thus depriving himself of any pleasure. As an act of penance, Rudy reverses his social position with respect to his family's servants, doing virtually anything they ask of him. Everyone in town calls Rudy "Deadeye Dick," which only adds to his trauma and guilt. To escape this sobriquet, Rudy moves to New York City where he produces a play called Kathmandu
which runs for only one night. It concerns a period in his father's youth in Austria, during which he is supposedly friends with Adolf Hitler.
Shortly thereafter, Rudy and Felix move to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where a now middle-aged Rudy recounts his tragic tale to the reader. With the narrative caught up to the present, a neutron bomb kills every inhabitant of Midland, Ohio, although the streets and buildings are strangely untouched. Moreover, there is no lingering radiation and so the city appears safe to inhabit. Rudy moves back to Midland to reclaim his lost youth and innocence. There, he encounters a government security team hired to protect the town from theft and property damage inflicted by interlopers.
Near the end of the book, Rudy still feels an extraordinary amount of guilt over what he did. At the same time, he finds a way to live with himself finally amid the ghost town of Midland. The book ends with a rumination by Rudy on how humanity, at least in the 20th century, has returned to the so-called Dark Ages of the Medieval Era. He hopes that humanity can rediscover its potential for love and goodness after so many years of cruelty.
Although Deadeye Dick
received mixed reviews upon its release, full of Vonnegut's trademark qualities, it is sure to impress the author's many fans.