Walter Starbuck, a career humanist and eventual low-level aide in the Nixon White House, is implicated in Watergate and jailed, after which he (like Howard Campbell in Mother Night) works on his memoirs. Starbuck is innocent (his office was used as a base for the Watergate shenanigans, of which he had no knowledge), and yet he is not innocent (he has collaborated with power unquestioningly and served societal order all his life). In that sense, Starbuck is a generic Vonnegut protagonist, an individual compromised by the essential lack of an interior.
Jailbird (1979) uses the format of the memoir to retrospectively trace Starbuck's uneven, centerless, and purposeless odyssey in or out of the offices of power. He represents another Vonnegut Everyman caught amongst forces he neither understands nor can defend. Written in the aftermath of Watergate, Jailbird is, of course, an attempt to order those catastrophic events and to find some rationale or meaningful outcome, and, as is usually the case with Vonnegut's pyrotechnics, there is no easy answer, or perhaps there is no answer at all.
Starbuck (his name an Americanized version of his long, foreign birth name), in his profound ambiguity and ambivalence, may himself constitute an explanation for Watergate, a series of whose consequences have not, decades later, been fully assimilated or understood. The Nixon who passes across the panorama of Jailbird is no more or less ambiguous than Starbuck himself - a man without qualities whose overwhelming quality is one of imposition.
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a fool and his self respect are soon parted
- Thomas J McGuire