“Basic Training,” a short, 22,000-word novella released through Amazon’s Kindle Singles program, is the newest posthumous release by acclaimed novelist Kurt Vonnegut. Although known primarily for his satire and science fiction work, “Basic Training” is more of a coming-of-age story than anything else. Considering that it was written at the start of his career, this genre is perhaps the most appropriate for his promising beginnings and eventual success.
The previously unpublished novella was rejected by popular short story publishers of the time, including the Saturday Evening Post and McCalls, before Vonnegut achieved mainstream success. Marketed by e-publisher RosettaBooks as a novella focusing on “the improbability of existence and the meaning of heroism,” “Basic Training” tells the story of Haley Brandon, a teenage boy who moves from New York to the farm of his retired military general uncle after the death of his parents.
“You’re evidently going to have to learn the hard way that your happiness for the rest of your lives depends on how well you fit yourselves into other people’s plans, not vice versa,” warns Haley’s uncle, “And on how willing you are to submit to the judgment of someone who knows more than you do.”
It’s with this rigidity in mind that the story’s central conflict arises between Haley’s previous lifestyle as a budding musician and the rigorous work required by Ardennes Farm.
However, “Basic Training” never quite captures the humanistic feeling of Vonnegut’s more memorable works — which is perhaps appropriate, considering it was originally submitted under his early pseudonym of Mark Harvey. There are certainly elements of Vonnegut’s satirical prowess within the short narrative, but these elements remain subdued subtleties rather than the more transparent brilliance displayed in later titles such as “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Breakfast of Champions.” The formulaic storytelling almost borders on cliche at times, and lacks the punch that Vonnegut is typically able to deliver, even in the most simplistic of phrases. As one of his earliest short stories, it’s clear that he’s still developing his voice and skill for delivering social satire.
Inspired by his own experiences following his return from World War II and written during his early days as a struggling writer, “Basic Training” seems more reminiscent of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” than the typical sci-fi Vonnegut novel in both style and storyline.
However, certain passages nonetheless stand out almost as foreshadowing of the eventual brilliance that Vonnegut would eventually achieve throughout his career: “At 2 a.m., Central Standard Time, as reckoned by the parlor mantle clock in the home of Brigadier General William Cooley, retired, a light beam left the burning sun. At 2:08 it glanced from the lip of a Moon crater, and a second later died on Earth, in the staring eyes of Haley Brandon.”
Although it may not be the best of Vonnegut’s work, “Basic Training” is still an enjoyable short story for its reasonable price tag of $1.99 as an Amazon Kindle Single. Alongside the promise of more unpublished Vonnegut work from RosettaBooks and the recent success of other Kindle Singles (such as Margaret Atwood’s “I’m Starved for You”), Vonnegut’s newest release may prove that there’s still a place for the short story in the modern digital marketplace.