Thursday, April 12, 2007

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R. I. P.: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

He survived Pall Malls for 84 years, and it was a fall resulting in brain injury that led to his death. Kurt Vonnegut has been part of my life and close to my soul since the 1960s, when my fiction writing teacher who'd been his student at the Iowa Workshop got us reading his early novels, just a few months before the world discovered him big time with Slaughterhouse Five. Of contemporary writers, I felt closest in ways I can't explain to two: Vonnegut and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

His New York Times obit is here.

Vonnegut was one of the voices we clung to in those bitter years of the late 60s. His voice was so distinctive that it was something that writers attached to rhythmic mimickry had to get loose of. No sooner had you broken the habit of writing like J.D. Salinger, Hemingway and Joseph Heller, along came Vonnegut. So it goes.

He was a countercultural voice who came by it honestly; he earned it. His use of science fiction motifs was part of it, especially for me. In later years he took on the appearance as well as the mantle of our 20th/21st century Mark Twain.

I've known so many people who knew him, and I've seen him on various screens and of course read him, so I feel I did know him, in that peculiar way in which he didn't know me from Adam. I encountered him in person at least three times I can recall. He spoke in Pittsburgh, where the U.S. Army had once sent him to study engineering. His speeches, especially at colleges, are legendary--even the ones he didn't actually deliver. They were full of wit and practical wisdom, and lots of provocation of thought and feeling, worth any 20 political or academic talks.

Before that, he passed through my mind as I was walking in Boston one afternoon, idly thinking I might run into him. Late that night, while sitting in an unprestiguous, noisy, overlit restaurant with members of a rock band I was supposed to be writing about (the drummer lamenting the absense of the groupies he had been promised), I glanced across the room and saw Kurt Vonnegut looking at us, and not real kindly. Such a coincidence is common in Vonnegut's fictional universe, where there are "leaks" between worlds and time is permeable. It actually happened to me twice within a short time; the other time I was in O'Hare airport thinking about Paul Simon, and a minute later there he was. It was weird enough to be a little scary, and so it's never happened again.

The last time I remember was in Manhattan. It was on the street and I saw him walking towards me, wearing just a comfortable indoor sweater on a cold coat-and-scarf day. I recognized him and smiled; he looked at me the way I was often looked at in New York--that ' are you somebody I should know?' look--and when he'd concluded I wasn't, he looked away. But I have that picture of him, walking the midtown streets as if from one room of his house to another.

I was talking about a short story of his just the other day. Someone, I forget who, has recently written a satire in which the suggested solution to social security and medical care shortfalls because of aging baby boomers is to kill them--humanely, I assume. Apparently this idea is striking a chord, which doesn't surprise me. Vonnegut wrote about it in the 1950s, in a story called "Welcome to the Monkey House" (also the title of his first story collection.) Because of overpopulation, old people were encouraged to visit their government sponsored Ethical Suicide Parlors. It was a wicked idea, but what makes writers cherish Vonnegut is his imagination, his detail. These Parlors were housed next to Howard Johnsons, their purple roof next to the orange roof of HoJos. They all had Hostesses, stewardess-like young women who humor the old folks but efficiently hurry them along to take their injection and die peacefully in the Barcolounger. You absolutely know that when these places are established, this is what they will be like.

I've only quoted him here once, from a 2006 speech in which he said: “The only difference between Bush and Hitler is that Hitler was elected.” That's Vonnegut in a nutshell: vivid, combative, funny, outrageous, passionate, pushing at the edge but with wit and meaning.

Vonnegut often wrote about Kilgore Trout, his alter ego--a version of who he might well have been if it hadn't been for the sudden success of Slaughterhouse Five, a poor and obscure science fiction writer. In Vonnegut's last novel, Timequake, Kilgore Trout dies. He was 84.