Howard Campbell is kind of a big deal—and not in his own eyes. See, he's a spy. Not the Bond, James Bond kind of spy who rappels off the side of buildings and brings down campy baddies, but the kind of spy who lives a lie and never gets any credit for his state-sanctioned deeds.
The upside? He's still kind of famous. The (other) downside? He's famous for being a Nazi. Specifically, he's been playing the part of an American traitor living in Germany and broadcasting icky, super vile propaganda. Basically, he's playacting at being the meanest, most vulgar troll you can imagine. Plus, he's doing all of this live, on-air.
Pretty much everyone not in cahoots with Germany during WWII hates Campbell, even though he's really just been working for Uncle Sam passing secret codes on the sly through his nasty broadcasts. So what gives? Why'd he even agree to this bonkers life that has cost him pretty much everything, including a fairytale ending with his wife, who is captured—and maybe (probably) murdered—by Russians?
The officer who recruits Campbell has some guesses as to why this dude would be so willing to give up his safety for such a raw deal, but it's Campbell himself who clues us in to the answer:
He didn't mention the best reason for expecting me to go on and be a spy. The best reason was that I was a ham. As a spy of the sort he described, I would have an opportunity for some pretty grand acting. I would fool everyone with my brilliant interpretation of a Nazi, inside and out. (9.67)
Okay, back up? This is all so he gets his chance to act? To be a twisted sort of star? Really? Really. We guess that in this age of reality TV stars, this kind of thing shouldn't surprise us. Campbell's been a playwright for so long that he kind of wants a bit of the limelight that's cast on his gorgeous actress wife. He just likes the idea of playing a part.
Campbell's totally got buyer's remorse, though: "And I did fool everybody. I began to strut like Hitler's right-hand man, and nobody saw the honest me I hid so deep inside" (9.68). What's the point of fooling everybody if you never get to yell gotcha? If nobody ever knows it's a lie, then is it? Are you as bad as they say?
Even if people do know, there's still a question: if you've spent years writing effective Nazi propaganda that has contributed to the killing of millions of people, aren't you responsible? Haven't you become what you thought you were just pretending to be?
These are the questions that haunt Campbell as he writes his memoir. The fact that his choices are such a heavy burden might help clear up the ending. Maybe.
What exactly is this ending? Well—wait for it—at long last, when the world finally clears Campbell's name of all charges and there's absolutely no one left to condemn him, the dude decides to commit suicide.
We don't really have a cut-and-dried reason why, but there are some weird whiffs of suicide that we get here and there leading up to this moment. Just before Campbell turns himself in, for example, we have a chapter in which our protagonist spends several hours standing frozen on the sidewalk.
That's it. He just stands there. Minding his own business. Scratch that: there's no business on the docket. Instead, he's just standing stock still, going through all the reasons why it might be that there's nothing left in his life.
Was he frozen because of guilt? Nope, he taught himself not to feel guilt.
Because of feeling unloved? Nope, he taught himself to live without love.
Because of the thought of God's cruelty? Nope, he taught himself not to expect anything from God.
Noticing a pattern? If you ask us, it seems like Campbell's doing a lot of self-brainwashing in order to feel numb. You didn't ask us? Okay, so we'll go back to reading with the grain and just point out that the reason Campbell does think he's standing frozen on the street is curiosity—specifically, the depletion of it.
Since Helga's death, the only thing driving Campbell's life has been his desire to satisfy his own curiosity. By the time he's lived through the events of this novel and experienced betrayal at the hands of Kraft and Resi, we guess he feels he's just seen enough.
Is that reason enough, though? Is that all it takes to end things like this?
Maybe not quite. Remember that Campbell has been living in a weird limbo since the end of WWII. He can't live out in the open, because people think he's a war criminal. But he's also not technically guilty, and that's one reason why he's not in prison, or at the gallows. But who is he now? What does he have left? What's the point of his life?
Let's take a closer look at Campbell's take on suicide, as he relates it to Wirtanen one night. The dudes are discussing Helga's death, and they mention how Wirtanen was once worried that its effect on Campbell would jeopardize his spy-work. Bear with us; this quote is a long one.
'We thought you'd kill yourself before the sun came up again.'
'I should have,' I said.
'I'm damn glad you didn't,' he said.
'I'm damn sorry I didn't,' I said. 'You would think that a man who's spent as much time in the theater as I have would know when the proper time came for the hero to die—if he was to be a hero.' I snapped my fingers softly. 'There goes the whole play about Helga and me, "Nation of Two,'' I said, 'because I missed my cue for the great suicide scene.'
'I don't admire suicide,' said Wirtanen.
'I admire form,' I said. 'I admire things with a beginning, a middle, an end—and, whenever possible, a moral, too.'
'There's a chance she's still alive, I guess,' said Wirtanen.
'A loose end,' I said. 'An irrelevancy. The play is over.' (32.29-36)
Sooo, apparently, Campbell kills himself because it's his chance to rectify the fact that he missed his chance to do so earlier. Earlier, his death would have made a neat little story parallel with Helga's demise. He's doing it for the sake of form.
Now that's getting a little hard to swallow.
However, the commentary is worth a pause. This is a postmodern text, after all, in which strict adherence to forms set out by thinkers like Aristotle is eschewed and upended. After all, we get a hodgepodge tale told out of sequence.
On one level, it's kind of fitting that Campbell goes out the way he does. Legally, he's basically in the clear. But morally? Yeah, that's another question. In a way, Campbell is playing his own judge: he's enacting the punishment his own conscience demands, even if the law has said he can go free. He's still writing his own life.
Campbell especially clings to values that romanticize the past as well as romanticize narrative itself. More important, he wants his life to imitate art. He wants to script his existence—or non-existence—the way he's scripted his plays. Or, maybe he wants to script his death the way being a spy has fictionalized his entire life. Okay, that's interesting.
Want to think of something else interesting? We thought so. Remember how Campbell is writing his memoir the whole time? He's literally scripting our knowledge of his life. Remember how he's a fictional character? This whole thing—memoir and death-as-art debate—is Vonnegut shining a big ol' metafictional flashlight back on his work.
By the way, want more Campbell? Spy his appearance (pardon the pun) in Slaughterhouse-Five.
Mind double blown.