Chapter One. Summary:
The narrator assures us that the book we are about to read is true, more or less. The parts dealing with World War II are most faithful to actual events. Twenty-three years have passed since the end of the war, and for much of that time the narrator has been trying to write about the bombing of Dresden. He was never able to bring make the project work. When he thinks about Dresden's place in his memory, he always recalls two things: an obscene limerick about a man whose penis has let him down, and "My Name is Yon Yonson," a song which has no ending.
Late some nights, the narrator gets drunk and begins to track down old friends with the telephone. Some years ago he tracked down Bernard O'Hare, an old war buddy of his, using Bell Atlantic phone operators. When he tracked his old friend down, he asked if Bernard would help him remember things about the war. Bernard seemed unenthusiastic. When the narrator suggests the execution of Edgar Derby, an American who stole a teapot from the ruins, as the climax of the novel, Bernard still seems unenthusiastic.
The best outline the narrator ever made for his Dresden book was on a roll of toilet paper, using crayon. Colors represented different people, and the lines crisscrossed when people met, and ended when they died. The outline ended with the exchange of prisoners who had been liberated by Americans and Russians.
After the war, the narrator went home, married, and had kids, all of whom are grown now. He studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, and in anthropology he learned that "there was absolutely no difference between anybody," and that "nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting." He's worked various jobs, and tried to keep up work on his Dresden novel all this time.
He actually did go to see Bernard O'Hare just a few weeks after finding him over the telephone. He brought his young daughters, who were sent upstairs to play with O'Hare's kids. The men could not think of any particularly good memories or stories, and the narrator noticed that Mary, Bernard's wife (to whom Slaughterhouse Five is dedicated), seemed very angry about something. Finally, she confronted him: the narrator and Bernard were just babies when they fought. Mary was angry because if the narrator wrote a book, he would make himself and Bernard tough men, glorifying war and turning scared babies into heroes. The movie adaptation would then star "Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men" (14). Wars would look good, and we would be sure to have more of them. The narrator promised that it won't be that kind of book, and that he'd call it The Children's Crusade. He and Mary were friends starting at that moment. That night, he and Bernard looked through Bernard's library for information on the real Children's Crusade, a war slightly more sordid than the other crusades. The scheme was cooked up by two monks who planned to raise an army of European children and then sell them into slavery in North Africa. Sleepless later that night, the narrator looked at a history of Dresden published in 1908. The book described a Prussian siege of the city in the eighteenth century.
In 1967, the narrator and O'Hare returned to Dresden. On the flight over, the narrator got stuck in Boston due to delays. In a hotel in Boston, he felt that someone had played with all the clocks. With every twitch of a clock, it seemed that years passed. That night, he read a book by Roethke and another book by Erika Ostrovsky. The Ostrovsky book, Cйline and His Vision, is a story of a French soldier whose skull gets cracked during World War I. He hears noises and suffers from insomnia forever afterward, and at night he writes grotesque, macabre novels. Cйline sees death and the passage of time as the same process.
The narrator also read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the hotel room's Gideon Bible. He calls attention to the moment when Lot's wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. He loves her for that act, because it was such a human thing to do.
Now, he presents us with his war book. He will strive to look back no more. This book, he says, is a failure. It was bound to be a failure because it was written by a pillar of salt. He gives us the first line and the last, and the central story of the novel is ready to begin.
Chapter Two. Summary:
"Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time." He wanders from moment to moment in his life, experiencing chronologically disparate events right after one another. He sees his birth and death and everything in between, all out of order, with no pattern to predict what will come next. Or so he believes.
Billy was born in 1922 in Ilium, New York. Tall, thin, and embarrassingly weak, he made an unlikely soldier. He was going to night school in optometry when he got drafted to fight in World War II. His father died in a hunting accident before Billy left for Europe. The Germans captured Billy during the Battle of the Bulge. In 1945 he returned to the States, finished optometry school, and married the daughter of the school's owner. During the engagement, he was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. After his release, he finished school, married the girl, got his own practice with help from his father-in-law, became quite rich, and had two kids. In 1968 he was the sole survivor of a plane crash. While he was in the hospital, his wife died of carbon monoxide poisoning. He returned home for rest, but without warning one day he went to New York and claimed on the radio that he had been kidnapped by aliens called Trafalmadorians. Billy's daughter, Barbara, retrieved him from New York. A month later, Billy wrote a letter to Ilium's newspaper describing the aliens. The Trafalmadorians are shaped like two-foot tall toilet plungers, suction cup down.
We now see Billy working on a second letter describing the Trafalmadorian conception of time. All time happens simultaneously, so a man who dies is actually still alive, since all moments exist at all times. Billy works on his letter, oblivious to the increasingly frantic shouts of his daughter, who has stopped by to check on him. The burden of caring for Billy has made Barbara difficult and unforgiving.
We move to the first time Billy gets unstuck in time. Billy receives minimal training as a chaplain's assistant before being shipped to Europe. He arrives in September of 1944, right in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. He never meets his chaplain or gets a proper helmet or boots. Although he survives the onslaught, he wanders behind German lines, tagging along with two scouts and an anti-tank gunner named Roland Weary. Weary repeatedly saves Billy's life, mostly by not allowing him to lie down in the snow and die. Although the scouts are experienced, Weary is as new to the war as Billy is; he just fancies himself as having more of a taste for it. By firing the anti-tank gun incorrectly, his gun crew put scorch marks into the ground. Because of those marks, the position of the gun crew was revealed to a Tiger tank that fired back. Everyone but Weary was killed. He is stupid, fat, cruel, and violent. Back in Pittsburgh he was friendless, and constantly getting ditched. His father collects torture devices. He carries a cruel trench knife, various pieces of equipment that have been issued to him, and a pornographic photo of a woman with a horse. He plagues Billy with macho, aggressive conversation. In his own mind, Weary narrates the war stories he will one day tell. Although he is almost as clumsy and slow as Billy, he imagines himself and the two scouts as fast friends. In his head he dubs them and himself the Three Musketeers, and tells himself the story of how the Three Musketeers saved the life of a dumb, incompetent college kid.
Straggling behind the others, Billy becomes unstuck in time. He goes back to the red light of pre-birth and then forward again to a day in his childhood with his father at the YMCA. His father tries to teach him how to swim by the sink-or-swim method. Billy sinks, and someone has to rescue him. He jumps forward to 1965, when he is a middle-aged man visiting his mother in a nursing home. Then he jumps to 1958, and Billy is attending his son's Little League banquet. Leap to 1961: Billy is at a party, totally drunk and cheating on his wife for the first and only time. Then, he is back in 1944, being shaken awake by Weary. Weary and Billy catch up to the scouts. Dogs are barking in the distance, and the Germans are searching for them. Billy is in bad shape: he looks like hell, can barely walk, and is having vivid (but pleasant) hallucinations. Weary tries to be chummy with his supposed buddies, the scouts, grouping himself with them as "the Three Musketeers." The scouts coldly tell him that he and Billy are on their own.
Billy goes to 1957, when he gives a speech as the newly elected president of the Lion's Club. Although he has a momentary bout of stage fright, his speech is beautiful. He has taken a public speaking course.
He leaps back to 1944. Ditched again, Weary starts to beat Billy up, furious that this weak college kid has cost him his membership in "the Three Musketeers." He cruelly beats Billy, who is in such a state that he can only laugh. Suddenly, Weary realizes that they are being watched by five German soldiers and a police dog. They have been captured.
Chapter Three. Summary:
The troops who capture Billy and Weary are irregulars, newly enlisted men using the equipment of newly dead soldiers. Their commander is a tough German corporal, whose beautiful