Kurt Vonnegut 1922-2007
Back in January, in a phoned-in appearance on the Imus In The Morning radio program, Kurt Vonnegut said that he was in the process of suing the Phillip Morris cigarette empire. Vonnegut, a lifelong chain-smoker of filterless Pall Malls, stated that the warning label on every pack he's purchased since 1964 has promised to kill him, "and yet I'm still alive". The ultimate irony is the fact that in the end, it wasn't the tobacco that finally killed him but a brain injury as a result of a fall in his New York apartment a couple of weeks ago.
So it goes.
To a generation of young people, what the Beatles were to music, Kurt Vonnegut was to literature. My first introduction to his work was as a freshman in High School. In the early months of 1974, a student teacher named Betsy Neithold gave me a copy of Breakfast of Champions. "Well, Kurt", said I, "this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Vonnegut is the only writer of fiction whose entire body of work I have read. The closing paragraph of that novel, disturbing and beautiful all at once, haunted me for years. The main character, a homeless and unkempt author of pulp science fiction named Kilgore Trout, comes face to face with his "creator", who is, in fact, Kurt Vonnegut, the author of the book in which Trout has found himself as protagonist:
"I somersaulted lazily and pleasantly in the void, which is my hiding place when I dematerialize. Trout's cries to me faded as the distance between us increased.
"His voice was my father's voice. I heard my father - and I saw my mother in the void. My mother stayed far, far away, because she had left me a legacy of suicide...
"Here was what Kilgore Trout cried out to me in my father's voice: 'Make me young! Make me young! Make me young!' "
What was so endearing about Vonnegut was the fact that, while the plot of any of his novels might have been insanely complicated, his prose was always very readable - even to a mixed-up fifteen year old like myself. It was, indeed, Kurt Vonnegut who introduced so many of my generation to the importance and beauty of the printed word. It was refreshing and somewhat shocking that a man who was older than most of our parents could be so incredibly hip! It had never even occurred to many of us that a man born before July 7, 1940 (the day Ringo Starr, the oldest Beatle, was born) could have anything of import to communicate to us. We knew in our gut that war - not just the war in Viet Nam but all war - was wrong. After all, we were the kids weened on the mantra of John Lennon's Give Peace A Chance. But while Lennon drilled it into our minds through endless repetition, it was Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. who articulated it for us with a gentle grace and a comic mastery of the absurdity of the human condition that no other writer in the twentieth century could even come close to expressing. He saw so clearly the self evident truths that the founders of this country hoped would be (but, sadly, are not) obvious to all of us: that life and the pursuit of happiness can be beautiful and wondrous - if only we exercise toward each other common courtesy and simple, human kindness.
As a prisoner of war during WW II, he emerged from the protective underground shelter beneath a slaughterhouse to witness, first hand, the after effects of the infamous 1945 fire bombing of Dresden, Germany. As part of a work crew that was forced to aid in the clean up of the destruction, his nationalism, however strong it might have been up to that point, was utterly and permanently destroyed. All he saw was the suffering; the children - not unlike your own children - whose only crime was that they were unfortunate enough to be born into a society where the rulers - not unlike your own rulers - were disgusting men of murderous ambition. This utter contempt for the barbarism of man never left him. His 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse Five, was the fruit born of that shattering experience amid the smoldering ruins of Dresden all those decades ago. It was his undying hatred of war that was, in many ways, the awakening for many of us; a hatred which he was able to translate and embed, with so little effort, into the consciousness of the generation he spoke so clearly to - or at least, like all great writers, he made it look easy. I guess that was the man's genius.
His last book, A Man Without A Country, published in late 2005, was a series of auto-biographical essays. Here's a little gem from page seventy-seven, the final paragraph of chapter seven:
"Speaking of plunging into war, do you know why I think George W. Bush is so pissed off at Arabs? They brought us algebra. Also the numbers we use, including a symbol for nothing, which Europeans had never had before. You think Arabs are dumb? Try doing long division with Roman numerals."
I'm sure going to miss Kurt Vonnegut.
SUGGESTED READING BY KURT VONNEGUT:
Breakfast of Champions
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
The Sirens of Titan
Welcome To The Monkey House
Wampeters, Foma and Granfaloons
Dead Eye Dick
A Man Without a Country
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Horrible commie swill. What kind of American are you for even reading this stuff?