It occurred to me at some point in the last year that I should be thinking about writing a personal obituary for Kurt Vonnegut. It wasn't that I thought his passing was inevitable, I merely wanted to be prepared because I knew the moment I heard the news I probably wouldn't be able to articulate my ideas and feelings. I kept putting it off, occasionally convincing myself that it was ghoulish to believe the man didn't have more years in him, that I still had plenty of time.
Looks like I missed the deadline.
It started in my garage. In my early teens the garage became one of those in-house sanctuaries for exploration and time alone. It was there that I discovered boxes of private things my dad owned. This didn't initially strike me as odd as my parents clearly held different personal and political views and to prevent discord they defaulted to abstinence. Politics were not discussed because they supported different parties. We owned more music than books but because they had different tastes (mom dug Motown, dad was a country-folkie) it was never played. Apparently there were books belonging to my dad that didn't belong with what few books we owned in the one bookcase in the living room.
It wasn't personal taste that caused the segregation of those books, but the dangerousness of their subject matter -- Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask) by Dr. David Reuben and Welcome To the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. It might have seemed rational with my hormones raging that I would have gravitated to the book about sex but a quick glance at its contents scared me. The book made repeated references to the sexual practices and activities of men and women, and to my teenage mind that meant adults, which included my parents, and I didn't want any unsavory mental pictures. That left me the Vonnegut to puzzle out, which I did over the course of a month's worth of bathroom visits. The bathroom was my other sanctuary and allowed me to read the book in secret. My parents probably thought I was masturbating.
The advantage of a short story collection is that you get a sampling of an author's voice and talents. While there were stories that I appreciated -- "Harrison Bergeron", "D.P." and "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" -- I wasn't quite satisfied. I felt like there was something more, something I wasn't really getting. It was time to go to the library.
This Vonnegut person had a good smattering of books on the shelves, the most promising of which was Cat's Cradle. I pulled it down and found a nook at the edge of the adult reading room and began reading. The chapters were short, like an early chapter book, but the story was told in an almost glib voice, staccato phrasing and disjointed. I didn't get it, mostly because I was unfamiliar with the style. I put the book back and gave up on Vonnegut.
A month later in a casual conversation with a classmate named Po I found another person who'd heard of Vonnegut. No, she hadn't just heard of him, she was practically an apostle. Her older brother had hipped her to his books and she was fan enough to recount all their plots in great detail. What she told me not only rekindled my interest but was exactly the confirmation I needed to know going in: "He's a cynical bastard, Elz, you'll like him." I think that's what she said. She might have actually said "you're like him."
As luck would have it in these situations Vonnegut had a new book out called Breakfast of Champions. I had no idea what I was in for but I was determined to figure out what this Vonnegut person was all about. There were raised eyes from the ladies at the check-out counter of my library but nothing more. I had planned to wait until I got home to start reading but curiosity got the better of me. And there I was, standing in the middle of the sidewalk reading the words and looking at the pictures (pictures! juvenile scrawl in the author's own hand!) thinking: I can't believe they would publish this.
In his own way, Vonnegut casually begins his book on matters that seem tangential to the story, or offered up as background. What he's actually doing is setting up his leitmotifs and his riffs, a verbal overture if you will meant to fool you into thinking that the story's coming, soon, sooner, just wait. In Breakfast of Champions there is talk of stories being published in nudie magazines, wedged between beaver shots, and for those who might be confused he offers his own drawings of what those photos would look like followed by a drawing of the animal it is compared with. I might not have been ready to deal with the realities of sex, but this I could understand!
And then a funny thing happened: I started liking books again, started liking reading. Over the course of seven years of formal education I had slowly had the joy of reading drained and beaten out of me. The initial flush of excitement that comes from being able to read for yourself had slowly been choked by endless worksheets full of directions, SRA booklets and Ginn & Co. readers with serviceable, workman-like stories designed for comprehension questions. The encouragement to read was still there, the library talks and the individual recommendations from teachers, but the joy had been deadened. By seventh grade the materials we were being introduced to had importance and carried weight as classics (or at the very least culturally significant) but there was little fun to be extracted from the exercise of reading, much less from the subject matter.
Vonnegut gave me hope. There were adults in the world writing books that were as outrageous as the British comedy that was being exported to PBS, full of the absurdities of mankind told with a dry acerbic wit. I got it, enough to send me back to Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five. It sent me to the drama section for a script of a PBS television adaptation of his stories called Between Time and Timbuktu. I reread the short stories with a new eye. By the time I was in eighth grade and had to write a book report/personal narrative in long-form (over 12 pages) I not only wrote in my version of Vonnegut's style, I made him a character in the report. I used to say Vonnegut taught me how to write but that's not true; Vonnegut gave me permission to borrow his voice until I could find my own, and he gave me a few hints about where to find it as well.
Vonnegut's name attached to a review in either Newsweek or Time made mention of Joseph Heller and Philip Roth. I read Catch-22 and Portnoy's Complaint as a result. Comparisons to Twain were made, but as much as I appreciate Twain's wit I never cared for the style. Understanding this didn't make it easier for me to find the kinds of voices I was looking for in literature but it did lead me down some unusual paths. I was too impatient to actually learn the finer points of craft in my own writing -- I would race to tell a story but skimp on details, butchered spelling, sucked at editing for clarity -- but I didn't let piddling details stop me. Another friend once referred to some poetry I attempted as Ginsburg-esque, an insult at the time because I wanted to be forward-looking, not beatnik. When it came time to head off to college I brought along two treasured authors: Vonnegut and Charles Bukowski.
Perfect for art school.
I suppose the death watch on Vonnegut officially begins in the mid-1980's. In the same year he published his last great book (in my opinion) Galapagos and attempted suicide. There was, in the back of my mind, a hope that one day I might be able to meet the man, that I would be in a place where we would both have something to talk about to each other. More than fanboy idolatry and perhaps something close to peer. Or master and student. But if my onset of puberty happened on-time my creative maturity has taken somewhat longer and the thought of ever being even a fledgling desciple long past. A
t a certain point when my beloved creatives began to shuffle off this mortal coil I realized my time with each of them was precious and limited. In the ever-present question of whom I would invite to a fantasy dinner for conversation the list of possible names on the roster keeps getting shorter. Up until yesterday Vonnegut's name was at the head of the table. Robert Altman was at that table until last year. Something tells me J.D. Salinger is going to bow out before I can send the invitation.
In the end I figured Vonnegut would play the wise old cuss until the very end. For all his doom and gloom he held in his heart a place for the redemption of humanity, no matter how much he argued for the other side. That is until recently. The election and re-election of George Bush and the policies and actions of the Bush administration finally broke his resolve. Here is a man who, as a US Infantryman, survived the fire bombing of Dresden in World War II and witnessed all of human history for the second half of the 20th century and could still find glimmers of hope that we weren't headed for self-destruction as a species. But for the last six years he has had that hope whittled away until finally, in his essays for In These Times (later collected in Man Without a Country) he had concluded there was no longer any reason to hold out hope.
In short, George W. Bush killed Kurt Vonnegut.
Vonnegut had anticipated dying from his addiction to cigarettes. He considered it an elegant form of suicide. Even twenty years after his official suicide attempt he was still going strong, still smoking, still unable to kill himself. Much like his faith in humans to not blow themselves into smithereens, that optimism that informed his cynicism kept him alive. Like many of us, we want to know how the movie is really going to turn out. The minute he began to feel all was lost was when he began to give up. I know he died from brain injuries suffered after a fall in his home, but somewhere in that brain the switch to fight for survival had been flipped to the off position.
In time, as with all writers, all that remains is the voice. For those who have left us many years ago the sting of that loss is dulled, if present at all. Those born today will not miss Vonnegut the person for lack of the intangible sense of having walked the Earth at the same time he did. Somehow, being alive at the time of a writer gives their voice a certain meaning, a sense of something shared. In the end the voice still carries on, in books, in recordings, in memories of speeches given. The voice is time-stamped, dated. He has said all he will ever say.
“If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music." —Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a CountyGood-bye, Blue Monday.