Written to be sold under the pseudonym of "Mark Harvey", this 20,000-word novella was never published in Vonnegut’s lifetime. It appears (from the address on the manuscript, a suburb of Schenectady, New York, and from the style and slant) to have been written in the late 1940s. Vonnegut was working at that time in public relations for General Electric and used pseudonyms to protect himself from the charge of moonlighting. He was trying to sell to the so-called slick magazines of the time, like The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s, while resisting the lure of science fiction - a tension throughout his professional career.
Basic Training is a bitter, profoundly disenchanted story that satirizes the military, authoritarianism, gender relationships, parenthood, and most of the assumed mid-century myths of the family. Haley Brandon, the adolescent protagonist, comes to the farm of his relative, the old crazy who insists upon being called The General, to learn to be a straight-shooting American. Haley’s only means of survival will lead him to unflagging defiance of the General’s deranged (but oh so American, oh so military) values. This story and its thirtyish author were no friends of the milieu to which the slick magazines’ advertisers were pitching their products.
Another unexpected writer’s influence underlies this story: J.D. Salinger. Throughout the ’40s and before his move to New York, Salinger had produced short stories whose confused or slightly deranged young protagonists (most of them around the age of Haley Brandon) stumbled through pre- and postwar Manhattan and military service, experiencing mild disaffection, alienation, and then terrible anger. All of them came to learn that the people who ran the show were as crazy and dangerous as those nominally on the other side. Shortly after these semi-whimsical social portraits were published, Salinger, like Vonnegut, was drafted, shipped into combat and involved in the Battle of the Bulge.
In this audio edition, performed for the first time by Colin Hanks (Band of Brothers, Orange County), exist not only Vonnegut’s influences and what later became his voice but Vonnegut’s grand themes: trust no one, trust nothing; the only constants are absurdity and resignation, which themselves cannot protect us from the void but might divert.
"Kurt Vonnegut's posthumous books have proved as surprising and wonderful as almost anything he published while alive, and Basic Training is no exception." (Amazon.com review)
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A Quaint Vonnegut Bildungsroman
Short Coming of Age Slice of Life
My first Vonnegut. Slow start but well worth the patience. The characters in ensemble are clearly drawn with each one showing growth and clear change.
I was quite moved in the final scene, when the General shows his strength of character by admitting his need for change of heart and expresses clearly with great difficulty that this indeed has happened. Then he is able to speak directly to his family with emotion no longer a threat to his authority, speaking of love with a balance of discipline.
Colin Hanks presented the characters clearly and consistently. He did a fine job.
I listened with interest as long as I could before breaking off for other required activities
It was a slow starting book for me, but I'm glad I hung in there rather than giving up. It was a great experience and I needed to learn not to quit too soon.