In the meantime, Dwayne is “getting crazier.” He hallucinates a large “duck directing traffic” in an intersection but tells no one. “He maintains secrecy,” but his “bad chemicals” are done with secrecy. They want Dwayne “to do queer things” as well, “and make a lot of noise.”
Dwayne’s desire to “maintain secrecy” regarding his mental health reflects the stigma of mental illness in American society. Often, mental illness is regarded with shame and embarrassment, which can lead those afflicted to suffer in silence.
After Dwayne goes publicly crazy, people who know him are “furious with themselves” for ignoring his “obvious cries for help.” The local paper runs an editorial called “A CRY FOR HELP,” and Francine Pefko, Dwayne’s “white secretary and mistress,” the woman who knows him best, claims that he appeared “happier” before losing his mind. “I kept thinking,” Francine says, “‘he is finally getting over his wife’s suicide.’”
Midland City’s failure to notice Dwayne’s “obvious cries for help” reflects society’s own tendency to ignore mental illness. Often, signs of mental illness are noted but willfully avoided, and this passage implies that society has a duty to intervene when someone in their community is struggling.
Francine works at Dwayne Hoover’s Exit Eleven Pontiac Village. The dealership is near the interstate, next to the new Holiday Inn. She recalls that Dwayne began to sing a lot before going crazy, old songs from his childhood like “Blue Moon.” The “black bus boy” and the “black waiter” in the lounge at the Holiday Inn think Dwayne’s singing is strange but expected. “If I owned what he owns, I’d sing, too,” the waiter says.
Notably, the black waiter and the black bus boy are two more examples of service positions being held by African Americans in the novel, which is another form of exploitation. The waiter’s comment also reflects this oppression; Dwayne isn’t singing because he’s crazy, he’s singing because he’s rich.
Harry LeSabre, Dwayne’s “white sales manager,” is the only person to notice Dwayne’s change in mental status, and he talks to Francine about it. “Something has come over Dwayne,” Harry says. “I don’t find him so charming anymore.” Harry has known Dwayne for over twenty years and first began working for him when the dealership was “right on the edge of the Nigger part of town. A Nigger,” Vonnegut says, “is a human being who is black.” Before the dealership moved to the interstate, they were constantly robbed. “I know him the way a combat soldier knows his buddy,” Harry tells Francine. Something is wrong with Dwayne.
In this passage, Vonnegut employs a racial slur that is not part of his characters’ dialogue. In other words, Vonnegut himself is engaged in racist language in this passage, which is hard to read; however, that is exactly what Vonnegut intends. He comments only on the things he wants to “cleanse” or rid from society, and since racism is often loud and ugly in American society, the same goes in his book. Here, Vonnegut holds up a mirror and forces society to look at its ugly reflection.
“Listen:” Harry tells Francine that Dwayne is “changing.” Harry can feel it. He tells Francine to go ask Vernon Garr, Dwayne’s longtime mechanic, what he thinks, but Vernon has noticed nothing. Vernon’s wife, Mary, is “schizophrenic” and believes that Vernon is “trying to turn her brains to plutonium,” so he hasn’t really been paying attention to Dwayne. Francine tells Harry that Dwayne is “human like anybody else.” He has had “a few bad days” is all, and they should cut him some slack. After all, he is the best employer in town.
Vernon’s failure to notice Dwayne’s mental decline because he is too busy dealing with his wife’s own insanity is highly ironic and underscores the fact that many people in American society are dealing with some sort of mental illness. In this way, Vonnegut again attempts to destigmatize mental illness, and essentially raises the following question: if so many people are affected by mental illness, why is society so ashamed of it?
Harry is “upset” with Dwayne because earlier that day he had gone into Dwayne’s office—as he always does, to make small talk—and Dwayne screamed at him. Harry was telling Dwayne that he is “sad sometimes” because he has no children, but he doesn’t want to “contribute to overpopulation.” Harry had said that perhaps he “should have adopted,” and Dwayne began to yell. Dwayne himself had been adopted, and this connection “caused an unfortunate chemical reaction in Dwayne’s head.”
This passage reflects Vonnegut’s argument regarding overpopulation and the subsequent destruction of the planet. More specifically, however, Harry’s adoption comment and Dwayne’s response also suggests that Dwayne is struggling with his emotions regarding his own adoption, which is negatively affecting his mental health.
“Harry,” Dwayne said, “why don’t you get a bunch of cotton waste from Vern Garr, soak it in Blue Sunoco, and burn up your fucking wardrobe? You make me feel like I’m at Watson Brothers.” Watson Brothers is the name of a local, upscale funeral parlor. Next week is “Hawaiian Week” at the dealership, a sales promotion in which customers win trips to Hawaii, and Dwayne told Harry not to bother showing up without new clothes. “I’m absolutely serious,” he told Harry. “Burn your clothes and get new ones, or apply for work at Watson Brothers.”
Dwayne’s verbal attack on Harry appears to be a symptom of his declining mental health, and it foreshadows the physical attacks Dwayne will commit at the end of the novel. Dwayne’s outburst is essentially “a cry for help,” but Harry takes his insults too personally. Additionally, Dwayne’s mention of a specific brand of gasoline and a specific funeral parlor again point to capitalism and advertising in American society.
Harry was shocked by Dwayne’s outburst. Harry is “generally acknowledged to be one of the most effective sales managers” in all the Midwest, and Dwayne has never mentioned his clothes before. This outburst might not have mattered so much, but Harry is “a secret transvestite,” and he is convinced that Dwayne’s comment about his clothes means he knows his secret. Not only can Harry be arrested and fined thousands of dollars for dressing like a woman on the weekends, he can be given five years in the Sexual Offenders’ Wing of the Adult Correctional Institution at Shepherdstown.
Vonnegut’s portrayal of Harry as “a secret transvestite” emphasizes the absurdity of the laws against him. Harry’s desire to dress like a woman on the weekend harms no one, yet he could be imprisoned for it. Harry is a productive and valuable member of society but is made to hide like a criminal, the stress of which is almost certainly negatively affecting his own mental health, which is precisely why he takes Dwayne’s outburst so badly.
That weekend, the “bad chemicals” in Dwayne’s brain wake him in the middle of the night. He goes to the bathroom where he puts a “loaded thirty-eight caliber revolver” into his mouth. Where Dwayne lives, “anybody who wants [a gun] can get one down at his local hardware store.” With the gun in his mouth, Dwayne thinks about the bullet ripping through his brain, and then he removes the gun and shoots the picture of a flamingo that decorates his shower door. “Dumb fucking bird,” Dwayne says.
Dwayne is obviously struggling with suicidal ideations, just as his wife and Vonnegut’s own mother did as well. Several characters contemplate suicide in the novel, which points to the prevalence of mental illness in American society.
No one hears the shots through Dwayne’s fancy, well-insulated home, and he walks outside to play basketball in his driveway and talk to his dog, Sparky. “You and me, Sparky,” he says to the dog. No one sees Dwayne in the driveway because he is blocked by tall shrubs. He stops playing basketball and climbs into a Plymouth Fury “he had taken in trade the day before.” As Dwayne drives away, he yells, “Keeping abreast of the competition!” so his neighbors won’t think it is strange that he is not driving a Pontiac.
Dwayne’s isolated home and driveway seems symbolic of his attempts to hide his mental illness and society’s overall desire to avoid grappling with difficult subjects like mental health. Dwayne is shooting up his bathroom and playing basketball in the middle of night, but he keeps these telltale signs of distress out of the view of others.
As Dwayne races down the road, he “slams into a guardrail,” spins a few times, “jumps a curb,” and comes to a rest in a vacant lot. Since Dwayne owns the lot, he decides to sit awhile. No one sees or hears a thing, and the only cop on patrol is sleeping around the corner. Dwayne listens to advertisements on the radio trying to sell him trees and shrubs. Most messages “sent and received in [Dwayne’s] country,” Vonnegut writes, “have to do with buying or selling some damn thing.” As Dwayne sits there alone, the ads are “like lullabies” to him.
Dwayne owns several vacant lots, so by resting in one of them, he is resting in his financial comforts. Here, the advertisements serve as a form of programming for Dwayne, which echoes Vonnegut’s people-as-machines narrative. The advertisements keep him wanting more, which in turn fuels his capitalist behavior. As such, the advertisements are like music to Dwayne’s ears, and therefore have a calming, almost hypnotizing effect.