Reading Vonnegut

March 25, 2007

I spent the afternoon reading Kurt Vonnegut‘s short book, A Man Without a Country. It’s been years since I’ve read any Vonnegut, which annoys me a bit since he was so much fun to read. I’ve had one or two of his unread books on my shelf for years but the last book I read of his, I think, was Hocus Pocus. I’d read everything up to then. This particular collection is typical Vonnegut, a pointed and poignant look at the human condition on planet Earth, artistically, politically, morally, and all the areas and segues in between. Many of the pieces appeared in In These Times magazine, and apparently those particular pieces are the highest-visited areas of their website.

Vonnegut is going to be 85 in November of this year, which is pretty amazing for a man who has smoked Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes since he was a teenager. Vonnegut was frequently pessimistic but with a hopeful Twainian edge, but with age comes more pessimism. I suppose that given the additional fodder of the political and world scene of the past 6 years or so, like most of us, he has a right to be. He complains that he’s going to sue Brown & Williamson Tobacco for failing in their promise to kill him.

Throughout my high school years, Vonnegut was as close to God via Mark Twain as anyone — I — could get. I read Cat’s Cradle in a hospital waiting room my freshman year, but I can’t remember what I was waiting for now. From there, it was a ride through Slaughterhouse-5, Breakfast of Champions, and Wampeters, Foma, and Granfalloons, among others.

My cousin and I used to chew up both his fiction and non-fiction, and his words provided fodder for quotes, humor and social commentary for a long, long time. My cousin drove down from Indianapolis one time, and we saw Vonnegut lecture at Northern Kentucky University.

We sat, wide-eyed and eye level, second row back, while Vonnegut spoke for well over an hour in a small, dimly-lit auditorium. I don’t remember too many of the specifics of the talk now, 20 years later, but I can still remember the feel of it, of finally seeing Kurt Vonnegut in real life, his greying hair sticking out wildly, the mustache, the glasses halfway down his nose as he spoke. He illustrated some story with felt-tip marker and easel, a cross that turned into a swastika that turned into a Celtic knot, I believe. And of course the asterick-inspired “asshole” picture he made famous in Breakfast of Champions. Most vividly remembered though was a comment he made that I put in my journal. I was reading Hemingway at the time, and Vonnegut said that Hemingway effectively punctuated the story of his life with the suicidal shotgun blast to his head. Wow.

My cousin saw Kurt Vonnegut a couple of weeks later at Butler University in Indiana. He’d taken a girl he’d been hot for for years to the lecture, Jill. At that lecture Vonnegut pointed him out in the audience, made him stand, and pretended to be a narrator-God making his subject, my cousin, his puppet.

At a little get together after the lecture Vonnegut spotted him and said, “I hope you didn’t mind my using you like that.”

My cousin, delighted and acting in theatre at the time, said no, he didn’t mind at all.

Vonnegut said, “Weren’t you also at the NKU lecture?”

“Why, yes I was.”

“My God,” Vonnegut said, shaking his head, “you’re a glutton for punishment, aren’t you?”

“Jill was impressed,” my cousin wrote in a letter (yes, we wrote letters then). “But not,” he added, “to the point of sexual intercourse.”

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