Of the works produced in Kurt Vonnegut's prime, (running from Sirens of Titan in 1959 to Slaughterhouse-5 in 1969), God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater is one of the less well known, and unlike most of the others, fairly linear and realistic in its plot devices. Along with Mother Night, it contains no overt science fiction themes. It is, for Vonnegut, a rather modest undertaking.
It is hard to tell with Vonnegut's work, because some things come up in every book, but many of the other themes that are important in Vonnegut's work are merely cameos in this book. The horror of World War II and the firebombing of Dresden make an appearance. Depression, suicide, alcoholism and people's various means of coping with their own grotesqueness also appear. And the presence of a clan of the ultra rich is as important here as it is in Sirens of Titan. But none of those things seems to be the theme of the book. The theme of the book actually is closest to that of Vonnegut's first work, Player Piano, which is what the value in normal, unsuccessful Americans after automation has made them economically useless. It is this question which drives the novel.
And it is because of the realism of this question that most of the book can take place in Rosewater County, Indiana, rather than in another galaxy. The portrayals of people and their problems, while given in a typical Vonnegut style, are fairly believable. It would make for a fairly boring story for those who aren't fond of Vonnegut's tangential, anecdotal writing style. Eliot Rosewater, a heir to a gigantic fortune, undergoes a mental breakdown and heads home to Indiana, where he sits in a dilapidated office and answers a crisis line where he cheers up losers and fools. It is the value he finds in interacting with people that makes up the core of the book, with the plot and even the social commentary coming behind that. Although the denunciation of inherited wealth and what it does to people is cutting, it is not the primary question. The devaluing of people can take place in any economic system, and the fact that some people are, through blind fortune, allowed to feel worthwhile about themselves is just used to highlight the point of what value anyone can truly claim to have in American society.
One aspect of the book that is underexplored is how Vonnegut feels about Rosewater, and whether Vonnegut is criticizing Rosewater, and whether if Vonnegut is not criticizing Rosewater, whether he should be. Despite the book's comments on class, the poor people that Rosewater helps are described as somewhat ridiculous and unimprovable. Rosewater tosses out help to them in a patronizing fashion, but doesn't actually change their conditions. Rosewater could also be seen as a narcissistic alcoholic who uses his money to live out a fantasy of being a Messiah. I don't know if Vonnegut fully treated these themes because Vonnegut himself, at the time of the novel's writing, could be seen to be in a similar situation, with enough popular success that he was dispensing amelioration to the peasants without being compelled to live amongst them. Vonnegut could be seen to be like Rosewater, bitter and self-righteous without having any actual solutions to give. It is also, if I can inject my own biography into this, where I find myself now.
Be that as it may, I think that Vonnegut's continued popularity is his ability to raise sharp, cutting questions, and this book certainly does so. It is also, like all of Vonnegut's books, very easy to read, and can be gotten through in a short afternoon. I suggest that those who haven't read it already make plans to do so.