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Picks and Pans Review: Galapagos

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by Kurt Vonnegut

If our world gets even worse than it is right now, Vonnegut can greet it with a clear conscience—knowing he warned us, and with his usual prophetic flair. In his 11th novel, the author has a narrator who is a ghost named Leon Trout. His story, written in the air with his finger a million years from now, tells of the end of everything as we know it. As the yarn begins a group of people are gathering in Ecuador to take the Nature Cruise of the Century. A new cruise ship will take them to the Galápagos Islands to see Darwin’s theory in action. But Ecuador, and indeed all South America, is about to fall into economic chaos and war. The celebrities who are scheduled on the cruise—Mrs. Onassis, Henry Kissinger and their like—get word in time and stay at home. Those who do show up in Ecuador include a wealthy power broker and his blind daughter, a Japanese genius inventor and his pregnant wife, a swindler of widows and a schoolteacher from New York whose husband has recently died. The Japanese wife is the daughter of a survivor of the radiation at Hiroshima and, as a result, her baby will be born with a soft coat of fur. Before the world’s collapse the narrator puts the blame for society’s breakdown on man’s “oversize brain.” When a Peruvian pilot bombs a hospital, the reader is told, “The big problem, again, wasn’t insanity, but that people’s brains were much too big and untruthful to be practical.” Because of a series of bizarre accidents, the ship leaves port with its captain and a few others. They wind up on an island, and although they survive, human beings as we know them today are irrevocably altered. If Vonnegut’s fable is dark, it is also original and funny. And for all the extremes of plot, the Vonnegut prose is, as usual, a model of simplicity and clarity. (Delacorte, $16.95)