This odd and eclectic little book contains a series of brief vignettes Vonnegut did for New York radio some years back. The basic premise is that Jack Kevorkian takes him almost to the point of death (in a Huntsville, TX, death chamber) so that Vonnegut can go and interview dead people. Each presentation reveals the upshot of these conversations.
The interviews are often humorous and sarcastic. They usually wish to make a general point about this or that particular issue in American society. They all reflect Vonnegut’s own interesting but usually leftist takes on American culture.
The book is intended to be a collection of witty social commentary, not a reflection on theology. Even so, Vonnegut does explain his personal views on the afterlife:
About belief or lack of belief in an afterlife: Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort.
I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead. My German-American ancestors, the earliest of whom settled in our Middle West about the time of our Civil War called themselves “Freethinkers,” which is the same sort of thing. My great grandfather Clemens Vonnegut wrote, for example, “If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?”
The question from Vonnegut’s grandfather is tragic, for, of course, it matters a great deal whether or not Jesus was God. Regardless, it is a helpful insight into Vonnegut’s mind. He appears to foster a respect for the historical figure of Jesus while harboring none for the identity of Jesus. As a Christian, this is a fatal misstep, but it likely describes the position of many Americans who seek to hold to the teachings of Jesus (selectively chosen, of course) while eschewing orthodox Christianity. (C.S. Lewis, among others, dealt, in my mind, a definitive death blow to this kind of attempted end-around run in Mere Christianity.)
Interestingly, there is no hell in Vonnegut’s book (as he points out more than once) so even Hitler is in Heaven. Some of the people don’t really even want to be there. Regardless, Vonnegut’s encounters are thought-provoking at best and mildly irritating at their worst.
To give you a taste, here is Vonnegut’s interview with Karla Faye Tucker:
It is late in the afternoon of February 3, 1998. I have just been unstrapped from a gurney following another controlled near-death experience in this busy execution chamber in Huntsville, Texas.
For the first time in my career, I was actually on the heels of a celebrity as I made my way down the blue tunnel to Paradise. She was Karla Faye Tucker, the born-again murderer of two strangers with a pickax. Karla Faye was completely killed here, by the State of Texas, shortly after lunchtime.
Two hours later, on another gurney, I myself was made only three-quarters dead. I caught up with Karla Faye in the tunnel, about a 150 yards from the far end, near the Pearly Gates. Since she was dragging her feet, I hastened to assure her that there was no Hell waiting for her, no Hell waiting for anyone. She said that was too bad because she would be glad to go to Hell if only she could take the governor of Texas with her. “He’s a murderer, too,” said Karla Faye. “He murdered me.”
Clearly, the intent is to use Tucker as a vehicle for Vonnegut to stress his disapproval of the death penalty. As a literary device, it really is quite effective, regardless of whether or not one agrees with Vonnegut’s views on this or that issue.
So here is my own take on this book: if you’d like to kill a little time by observing the musings of an interesting, often short-sighted, occasionally insightful and frequently humorous humanist, check it out. Christians will find some aspects of the book disheartening and sad, and they should. There is limited value in the work. It does show the inner mental workings of one of America’s more interesting writers. For a Christian, though, the book oftentimes lapses into the kind of modernistic and vapid platitudes one may encounter on any street corner on any given day.