Saturday, April 14, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was one of the few famous people I wish I would have personally met. There are many artists whose work means much to me -- Van Morrison, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Neil Young -- whom I have no desire to meet. Hunter S. Thompson was the leader in that category while alive. It was often entertaining reading about his antics, but I never wanted to be within a thousand miles of the man.

It was different with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., whom I always thought of simply as Vonnegut.

Slaughterhouse Five was the first Vonnegut novel I ever read. After the first twenty pages, I thought it was a terrible book. The narrative was nothing more than the author speaking directly to the reader. I was such a stranger to art in my early days that I had no clue that this would, actually, become one of the aspects of Vonnegut's writing that I would most love.

Reading Kurt Vonnegut made me feel better about not knowing what I was doing when attempting my own writing. Vonnegut kept his insecurities in the foreground as his genius powered his work in the background. The second Vonnegut novel I read was Mother Night. Of course my underdeveloped sense of appreciation for subtlety and artfulness was momentarily unimpressed by the book's simplicity. But as the plot unfolded, I remember being knocked out of my chair by the story. When I finished reading the book, I was hooked.

This hasn't kept me from doubting Vonnegut on occasion. I continue to doubt him when trying to get through Hocus Pocus. I doubted him mightly at times in Galapagos and Dead-Eye Dick. As Vonnegut would readily admit: Nobody is perfect -- the writer nor the reader.

On my first visit to Ireland when I was twenty years old, I had limited space among my possessions, but still brought along Vonnegut's collection of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House. The story "Long Walk to Forever" was like a lightning strike inside of me. And the distraction was very welcome, as I gone to Dublin simply to go to Dublin, and within hours of arriving wondered just what the hell I was doing so far away from home. It worked out in the end.

Years later, while living in Ireland, a good friend came to visit. The day before he left, he bought me a book as a gift to say thanks for having him over. Saying thanks to me! I was so gratified having my friend with me for two weeks that I took him out, got drunk and vomited on his shoes. The book my friend bought me was Vonnegut's last novel, Timequake. The novel is not considered one of Vonnegut's best, though it's among my favorites. It's so flawed and Vonnegut was so upfront about its flaws -- mitigating for them with wonderful updates on the actual people who had populated his previous books. There was nothing more heartrending than reading Vonnegut's beloved, revered brother, Bernie, had died at the age of eighty-six. I reread Timequake last year and it has held up marvelously.

I saw Vonnegut when he appeared on The Daily Show last year. It was terrible seeing how feeble and aged Vonnegut had become; how miserably out of breath he was. But he proved the youth and vigor of his ideas, the still-polished-chrome of his humor. He was as relevant that day as when Slaughterhouse Five hit the bestseller lists in 1969.

Last year I read Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, and Slapstick for the first time. I've owned strange little hardback editions of these books for years, found in the early 1990s in a Detroit used bookstore. I had started the novels numerous times, but set them aside for something else. But last year I was determined to give them one final try. All three were wonderful. Vonnegut the short story writer was much more in evidence in the first two novels, both written early in his career. They are very tight and to-the-point. The humor is more subtle in those. By the time of Slapstick Vonnegut was much looser on the page.

In 1992, I did a "directed reading" in the English department of the University of Windsor. I had dropped a creative writing course and wanted to make up the credit. My directed reading centered on Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, Mother Night and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. My professor -- a Vonnegut-esque character in his own right; a sweetly morose poet who watched The Simpsons and flipped through his wife's Victoria's Secret catalog when not perpetrating academics -- really bailed me out consenting to lead my directed reading. At that time in my life I was living with a girlfriend in a rented room in a shitty house. I sat in the dank, foot-smelling living room with my books and photocopies of articles about Vonnegut from The Dictionary of Literary Biography.

While writing my paper on those three novels, I had the distinct impression that Vonnegut would have been embarrassed for me. Vonnegut, himself, only ever read for pleasure. He never sought to prove he understood a book by writing about it. That's just what I was doing. By it was one of the few truly pleasurable assignments of my academic career. So much so that the latent Catholic in me felt a little guilty about the whole thing.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., has died and I have yet to read "So it goes" in any of his obituraries. I hope I don't read that anywhere. The loss of Vonnegut is immense. For all of the turmoil and triumph in his life, he is one of the few people I've encountered -- personaly or via their work -- who communicated true values all human beings could live by. He was no preacher, no prosletyzer, he was just very wise and equally humble. One of my favorite quotes of Vonnegut's comes from his novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:
"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies — 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.'"

1 comment:

Robert Earl Stewart said...

It's funny how the Hocus Pocus, Galapagos and Dead-Eye Dick are the books you struggled with in the Vonnegut cannon--yet they are amongst my favourites.

After reading Hocus Pocus in twelfth grade, I bought a copy of it for a girl for Christmas. She was smart and a voracious reader. I liked her and wanted her to be in love with me. I thought Hocus Pocus would impress her. She politely read the book, and then, when we were out with other people one night, she proceeded to tell me why the book sucked, how stupid it was and she did it all so everyone could hear. Although hurt, I stupidly and blindly continued to worship the girl until Jen came along in 1993. They were high school friends.