Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007

I honestly can't remember the last time that a celebrity's passing truly affected me. In 1990, I was a junior in high school. Our English class was assigned, in pairs, to make a further investigation of one of the writers we had studied and then present our findings. My friend Brett and I enjoyed the experimental style and alternately goofy and dark humor of Slaughterhouse-Five, so we chose Kurt Vonnegut.

A few weeks later, I was sitting in the back of my Algebra II class, reading the stories in Welcome to the Monkey House. (I followed my passions and ignored what bored me as a student, and I'm still pretty sure that's not what you're meant to do while a student. Sorry, Algebra II teacher.) The story I had gotten to that day was called "Long Walk to Forever," and in stark contrast to the rest of the collection's sci-fi and social satire, it's a straightforward love story about an AWOL soldier named Newt who comes home to keep a girl he loves from marrying someone else. It ends with the sentence, "She ran to him, put her arms around him, could not speak."

That story didn't make me a sap. I think that was taken care of at birth. But it did increase my desire to become a writer, and my faith that I could do it. Thinking about it now, it was probably directly responsible for some truly terrible stories I wrote in college, full of clipped sentences and unearned sentiment.

Vonnegut wrote this about the story in the book's preface:
In honor of the marriage that worked, I include in this collection a sickeningly slick love story from The Ladies Home Journal, God help us, entitled by them "The Long Walk to Forever." The title I gave it, I think, was "Hell to Get Along With."

It describes an afternoon I spent with my wife-to-be. Shame, shame, to have lived scenes from a woman's magazine.
Shameful, maybe. But certainly less so than a guy getting misty-eyed about it in the back of math class at 16! Reading it now, of course, is an entirely different experience. Still, I'm grateful for the thrill it gave me at the time. And for all the thrills Vonnegut gave me in the ensuing year or two, when I read many of his other books, relating strongly to his distaste for group thinking and his occasional unembarrassed joy in the face of the ridiculous human condition. He also made me laugh harder than any writer had to that point.

I'm sure the obituaries now being printed take Vonnegut very seriously, which he deserves, but while he lived there was always an apologetic air about serious readers who discussed their "Vonnegut phase." I mean this as the highest praise: I think Vonnegut was, ideally, a writer for smart teenagers. He was, and is, a writer for when you're still honest about needing to figure life out, not for when you mistakenly believe you have it knocked.

But, understatement of the century, this isn't about me and my opinions, so I'll finish with another excerpt from that preface:
My only sister, five years older than I, died when she was forty. She was over six feet tall, too, by an angstrom unit or so. She was heavenly to look at, and graceful, both in and out of water. She was a sculptress. She was christened "Alice," but she used to deny that she was really an Alice. I agreed. Everybody agreed. Sometime in a dream maybe I will find out what her real name was.

Her dying words were, "No pain." Those are good dying words. It was cancer that killed her.


I used to be a public relations man for General Electric, and then I became a free-lance writer of so-called "slick fiction," a lot of it science fiction. Whether I improved myself morally by making that change I am not prepared to say. That is one of the questions I mean to ask God on Judgment Day -- along with the one about what my sister's name really was.

That could easily be next Wednesday.

I have already put the question to a college professor, who, climbing down into his Mercedes-Benz 300SL gran turismo, assured me that public relations men and slick writers were equally vile, in that they both buggered truth for money.

I asked him what the very lowest grade of fiction was, and he told me, "Science fiction." I asked where he was bound in such a rush, and learned that he had to catch a Fan-Jet. He was to speak at a meeting of the Modern Language Association in Honolulu the next morning. Honolulu was three thousand miles away.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


5:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the reminiscence. I discovered Vonnegut in high school, was assigned him in college and frequently went back to remind myself how brilliant the writing was and to enjoy the words as I had the first time.

5:51 PM  
Blogger SpeedyScience said...

I didn't discover Vonnegut until after I had my daughter. I became addicted to short stories (all I could fit in), and ran across a Barnes and Noble compilation of many of his previously published articles. I was sucked in at "Thanasphere".
Thanks for a beautiful send-off.
Please keep up the blogging. I found you through Pajiba, but I find myself coming here more than there sometimes.

10:23 PM  
Blogger bokonon_believer said...

Great post on Vonnegut, i actually sent a mass email to my friends the day the news was released as I couldn''t believe that I was actually affected by his death in anyway. However, he is pretty much the foundation of my worldview so I guess I shouldn't be that surprised.

4:01 PM  

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