BY MATTHEW HERBERT
The pivotal event in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1982 novel Deadeye Dick is when the narrator-protagonist Rudy Waltz shoots and kills a pregnant woman in Midland City, Ohio, circa 1950. Rudy is 12 years old, and for a thrill he has fired his father’s Springfield rifle from an attic window. (It’s actually a cupola window: Rudy’s eccentric and grandiose father designed the house as an art studio.) Eloise Metzger, vacuuming in her house half a mile away, is struck between the eyes. She never knew what hit her.
Since Rudy can’t be tried as an adult, the police feel it is only right to get in some rough justice while they can. So they smear Rudy’s face in ink, to “faceprint” him, put him in a cage, and invite Midland City’s notables to come jeer at him. They also have the widower, George Metzger, come down to confront Rudy–and maybe do more.
The police tell Metzger that they would look the other way should he try to grab one of their service revolvers and in the scuffle accidentally shoot Rudy. Or, they could arrange for Rudy to fall down some stairs. Refusing those offers, Metzger is handed an electric cable and encouraged to whip Rudy, who is bent over a table and held down by police. His 12-year old ass bared, Rudy bleats to Metzger that the shooting was only an accident. Instead of whaling on the boy, the widower drops the whip and goes to walk away. But the police implore him: he must at least have something to say.
Bereft and mortified, Metzger says to the heavens: “God–there should not be animals like us. There should be no lives like ours.”
Why did Vonnegut have Metzger say this?
It seems perfectly clear: it is a cry of naked dread, an objection to something having gone drastically wrong in society. Vonnegut never cloaks his liberal horror in literary contraptions like reverie, post-structuralism or what have you. When he wants, say, a lonely, alienated housewife to end her misery through suicide, he has her eat Drāno and liquefy her insides. Still, like the plain-looking parables in Sunday school, there are often deeper meanings to Vonnegut, and it can be instructive to find out what they are.
The most noteworthy thing about Metzger’s lamentation is his use of the plural ours. Isn’t his wife the sole victim here? Whose fates, exactly, is he ruing so bitterly when he says there should be no lives like ours? These:
- His wife, Eloise. She was shot and killed on Mothers Day, in her own home, minding her own business.
- Her unborn baby, who had no business of her own, as of yet, to mind.
- Metzger himself. He has lost his wife suddenly and inexplicably, to an unintelligible combination of malice and randomness. Further, he must explain this loss to his children and continue to raise them as if the world made sense.
- Rudy. He doesn’t really know why he fired the gun, only that his action was wrong. He was in a trance-like state. The gun seemed to want to be fired.
- Rudy’s parents. Why had they allowed him access to deadly weapons and taught him a fondness for using them?
- The police. Amped up on outrage, they abused a child and violated his constitutional rights, including the Eighth Amendment, the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The main peculiarity of the scene is Metzger’s identification with, rather than repulsion from, Rudy. This would be highly unusual in real life. Facing his wife’s killer, Metzger does not condemn him. He refuses to cast Rudy out of the community to which Metzger himself belongs. He won’t go along with the Midland City mob, which had spent all afternoon shouting at Rudy that he was a monster. And even though Metzger may not be aware of their role in the tragedy, we may add more lives to those Metzger wishes had not come into being:
7. The Midland City mob, who turned out to stigmatize Rudy.
Rudy, for his part, understands the point of the police’s exercise in rough justice. They are exalting a moral vision that sharply separates wrongdoers from the innocent wronged. Not just their jobs, but the cohesion of society depends on maintaining this illusion. It is important for keeping people assured that life will not slip into chaos.
In the cage under the courthouse, 12-year old Rudy knows he has done a grave wrong, but he also knows that it is not mere revenge that has inspired the decent folk of Midland City to turn him bodily into a taboo. They are trying to isolate and neutralize the overpowering threat of moral chaos. “I wonder,” Rudy reflects, “if it mattered much that I was in the cage in the basement of the old courthouse . . . . A curiously carved bone or stick, or a dried mud doll with straw hair would have served as well as I did, there on the bench, as long as the community believed, as Midland City believed of me, that it was a package of evil magic. Everybody could feel safe for a while. Bad luck was caged. There was bad luck, cringing on the bench in there.”
Evil cannot be neatly circumscribed in the acts and choices of a single individual. It is almost always systemic, with connections going every which way. Under the courthouse, Metzger is appalled at how the police have been transformed by righteous moral outrage into sadistic jackals. Furthermore, they tried to multiply the blight of evil by inviting Metzger to join their debauch. Why did Metzger hold back? His unprepossessing entrance to the dungeon gives a strange clue:
He wore horn-rimmed spectacles, and his eyes were red from crying, or maybe from too much cigarette smoke. He was smoking when he came down the stairs, followed by the detective who had gone to get him. He behaved as though he himself were a criminal, puffing on the same cigarette he would be smoking when he was propped against the basement wall in front of a firing squad.
Metzger knows that his wife’s death was caused by a collective, societal moral failure, not an isolated act of pure evil. And he is a member of the society whose imperfections brought it about. How does he know this? Because he writes about ordinary people living ordinary lives every day, and as such, he knows that life happens to people. We are moral agents, yes, who deliberate and make choices about what to do, but we nonetheless remain imperfectly in control of the harms and goods we cause with those choices. Plus, shit just happens, oftentimes horrible, tragic shit. Taken on the whole, we are moral patients and agents.
Deadeye Dick is above all else a meditation on the meaning of life. Our lives come to us unbidden: we have no idea what they will hold–good or bad–or even what life is. Vonnegut opens the novel by soliloquizing on this mystery:
To the as-yet-unborn, to all innocent wisps of undifferentiated nothingness: Watch out for life.
I have caught life. I have come down with life. I was a wisp of undifferentiated nothingness, and then a little peephole opened quite suddenly. Light and sound poured in. Voices began to describe me and my surroundings. Nothing they said could be appealed. They said I was a boy named Rudolph Waltz, and that was that.
Most harms are too complex to accommodate a clear, unambiguous assignment of blame. Rudy arrived in that fateful cupola as a result of absentee parenting, and other accidents of fate. Rudy’s father, Otto, was not so much evil as morally vacant, and just plain weird and self-centered. He had struggled to be an artist in 1920s Vienna in the same circles Adolf Hitler, and the two became friends. Acting in goodwill, Otto may have helped Hitler survive pneumonia one winter. So it goes. After many years back in Midland City, Ohio, Otto’s enthusiasm for fascism faded, but not before leaving a mark on his sons. As teens they commiserated, “Couldn’t we at least have had a father who didn’t say ‘Heil Hitler’ to everyone, including Izzy Finkelstein?”
If there is a clear morality tale to be read in Deadeye Dick, it is about the intersection of small human quirks, missteps, and lapses that lead to large, life-ruining tragedies. It is not the huge, radioactive evil of Nazism in Rudy’s father’s past that leads to the shooting of Eloise. Rather it is Otto’s eccentricity and neglect of basic parenting obligations. Through no fault of his own, Rudy is given a deeply haphazard moral education that can be described as grotesque at best. Then there is the cupola, teeming with guns. Anything–or nothing–could have happened as a result of that combination. But what happened happened.
“That is my principle objection to life, I think” muses the 50-year old Rudy, looking back on his shooting of Eloise Metzger; “It’s too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes.”
The narrow, political message of Deadeye Dick is that we Americans stand out among nations in how easy we have made it, through gun culture, to enable people to make such “perfectly horrible mistakes.” Indeed, the more we spread guns and gun-love, the harder it becomes to categorize shooting deaths as mistakes or even tragedies. We choose them. And this is the broader, philosophical message of Deadeye Dick. The attitude of George Metzger, and especially his harsh, strange pronouncement should point us toward lessons we need to learn in collective duty and responsibility. We speak fine words about valuing human life and safeguarding decency and so forth, but our actions to the contrary speak much louder than our words. Maybe there should be no lives like ours.