Vonnegut revealed the world's absurdity

`Slaughterhouse-Five,' his take on Dresden, `knocked all our socks off'

Appreciation

April 13, 2007|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Reporter

So it went.

Man born. Man died. Lots of funny stuff written in between.

Hi Ho.

Kurt Vonnegut - post-modern satirist, king of the catchphrase (should've trademarked "So it goes," old boy), one of America's great rite-of-passage novelists - died Wednesday at 84.

Official cause of death: brain injuries suffered in a fall.

Or, as Mr. Vonnegut would say, "slipped on God's banana peel."

He was a self-described humanist who didn't put much stock in humans, those glorious, hare-brained underachievers.

"We're terrible animals," Mr. Vonnegut remarked in an appearance on The Daily Show. "I think the Earth's immune system is trying to get rid of us, as well it should."

God proved to be an even bigger disappointment.

"If there is a god," he once wrote, "he sure hates people."

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the son of an architect, was born and raised in Indianapolis. Ground Zero of Middle America. A Heartland Hoosier. Maybe that explains why he couldn't take the leap to full-blown nihilist. He settled for black comedian.

Good for us.

He went East to school. He then went farther east to war and was never the same.

A scarecrow Army scout, he was captured by German troops in December 1944 and held prisoner in Dresden, Germany. In February 1945 the Allies' saturation firebombed the city for three days. Militarily speaking, Mr. Vonnegut later sardonically observed, "a work of art."

More than 130,000 civilians were killed. Mr. Vonnegut was put on burial detail, but the job was beyond shovels. Nazi soldiers had to torch the dead with flamethrowers.

After the war, he tried graduate school (his puckish-sounding master's thesis in anthropology, which explored similarities between the Cubist movement and the plight of the American Indian, was deemed "unprofessional"), newspaper reporting and public relations work.

He finally threw in the towel and turned to fiction. Fourteen novels (plus several short story collections, a play and memoirs) spilled out of him between 1959 and 2005.

The best of the bunch - including Mother Night (about the muddled life of an American-born Nazi propagandist), Cat's Cradle (the arm's race run amok with the creation of "ice-nine," which solidified at room temperature) and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (relatives plot to get the overly benevolent head of a philanthropic foundation declared insane) - lit up the Sixties literary scene like cluster bombs.

But none detonated with the concussive force of Slaughterhouse-Five, Mr. Vonnegut's time-bending take on his Dresden experiences. He wrote that book in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War.

"Slaughterhouse-Five was the one that knocked all our socks off, especially if you had a father who didn't tell those kinds of war stories," recalls Bethesda-based novelist Alice McDermott, who picked up a copy when she was about 16.

Madison Smartt Bell, the novelist who also teaches creative writing at Goucher College, recalls reading Mr. Vonnegut's first seven books in his early teens. His mother turned him on to them. She was trying to wean him off science fiction. It worked.

"Just as marijuana leads to heroin," Mr. Bell later moved on to more so-called serious novelists. "The thing about those books is they're accessible to adolescents," he says of Mr. Vonnegut, "but that doesn't mean they have an adolescent sensibility."

Kurt Vonnegut fit into millions of lives somewhere between Playboy and Proust. "So subversive and cool," notes Ms. McDermott. He was many a readers' introduction to a disorderly world; that wry voice whispering in their ear that presidents and popes make mistakes. Real doozies. And, furthermore, don't count on God to save the day.

For some, however, the woe-is-us themes, over-the-top plotting and unspectacular prose wore thin. "I always liked his essays more than his fiction," says Stephen Dixon, professor at the Johns Hopkins University, a novelist twice nominated for the National Book Award and a fan who articulates what is considered Vonnegut's Achilles heel: The notion that eventually you outgrow him.

But Ms. McDermott thinks that Mr. Vonnegut gets too easily dismissed as a simplistic, one-note wonder. "We tend to forget it was new and exciting when he did it." And nobody has ever done absurdity better, and over as many years.

All the meaning that he could ever squeeze from this rumbling-along world can be best summed up in a declarative statement uttered by his character, Elliott Rosewater: "There's only one rule that I know of, babies - `God damn it, you've got to be kind.'"

In the1996 novel Timequake, his science-fiction-writing alter-ego, Kilgore Trout, dies at 84 - same age as Mr. Vonnegut! Coincidence? Or does God have a sense of humor?

But no knocking Mr. Vonnegut. Even though he wouldn't expect high praise.

"My last words," Mr. Vonnegut once mused. "`Life is no way to treat an animal, not even a mouse.'"

tom.dunkel@baltsun.com

Works by Kurt Vonnegut

All are books unless otherwise noted:

Player Piano, 1951

The Sirens of Titan, 1959

Canary in a Cat House, 1961 (short works)

Mother Night, 1961

Cat's Cradle, 1963

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, 1965

Welcome to the Monkey House, 1968 (short works)

Slaughterhouse-Five, 1969

Happy Birthday, Wanda June, 1971 (play)

Between Time and Timbuktu, 1972 (TV script)

Breakfast of Champions, 1973

Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, 1974 (opinions)

Slapstick, 1976

Jailbird, 1979

Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage, 1981 (essays)

Deadeye Dick, 1982

Galapagos, 1985

Bluebeard, 1987

Hocus Pocus, 1990

Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s, 1991 (essays)

Timequake, 1997

A Man Without a Country, 2005 (essays)

[Associated Press]

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