BLUEBEARD by Kurt Vonnegut


A Novel
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Likable, jaunty, lesser Vonnegut: the chatty autobiography of minor Abstract Expressionist painter Rabo Karabekian (a minor player in Breakfast of Champions)--interspersed with Rabo's present-day doings in his posh, art-treasure-filled manse in East Hampton, Long Island. Now 70-ish, a loner since the death of his super-rich, beloved second wife, Rabo hasn't painted for years. His potato-barn studio is locked, with his final, secret masterwork contained therein (á la Bluebeard); his house bursts with the Pollocks and Rothkos and such he acquired years ago for little or nothing; his own so-so oeuvre is nonexistent, having self-destructed--"thanks to unforeseen chemical reactions between the sizing of my canvases and the acrylic wall-paint and colored tapes I had applied to them." So Rabo is writing his memoirs, despite frequent interruptions from his new, self-invited house. guest: nosy, pushy, voluptuous Circe Berman, 43, widow of a Baltimore brain-surgeon, and author (under the "Polly Madison" pseudonym) of super-popular YA novels. And there are also occasional visits from neighbor-chum Paul Slazinger, a penniless, artistic novelist whose fragile psyche is hard-hit by the presence of crafty, nonartistic best-selling "Polly Madison." The memoirs themselves also feature this hoary art/commerce dichotomy. As an artistically gifted boy in 1920's California, child of Armenian immigrants (traumatized by the Turkish atrocities), Rabo writes fan letters to famous, super-realistic NYC illustrator Dan Gregory (nÉ Gregorian)--and wins, long-distance, the heart of Gregory's abused mistress Marilee Kemp. This leads to an apprenticeship with creepy Gregory (a graphic "taxidermist"), a brief affair with Marilee ("three hours of ideal lovemaking"), and a lifelong preoccupation with technique vs. "soul" in painting. Later on there's WW II service as a camouflage specialist (Rabo loses an eye), an unnerving reunion with war. scarred Marilee in Italy, and bohemian days with the young Abstract Expressionists--focusing on a fictional, self-destroying genius named Terry Kitchen. The book's final revelation--the nature of the secret painting locked up in the potato-barn--finds Vonnegut returning, without much force, to his favorite antiwar themes. Elsewhere, too, the familiar messages--pacifist, humanist, feminist--are worked in rather clumsily. But the curmudgeonly interplay with unstoppable snoop Circe/Polly has a bright comic edge reminiscent, mildly, of Berger and Bellow; the sprightly memoirs have just a light, airy shading of fable and exaggeration. So, though less arresting or Vivid or disturbing than prime Vonnegut (and a disappointment for readers expecting real development of the Abstract Expressionist angle), this is an easy-to-take mixture of comic diversion, low-key satire, and unabashed preaching.
Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1987
ISBN: 038533351X
Page count: 340pp
Publisher: Delacorte
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1987


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