Monday, April 16, 2007

So it goes
When I was 16 years old, my English teacher, Mr. Ruhe, tossed me a book and said, "I think you're ready for this." The book was Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Flattered, I cautiously cracked the book open, expecting it to be cryptic like Joyce or arcane like Emerson. Instead, it was horrifying, thrilling, poetically pure, and goddamned hilarious. It's not an overstatement to say my life has never been the same.

After Slaughterhouse-Five, I devoured Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions and all the rest of the books Vonnegut had written up to that time, reveling in each unorthodox construction, each science-informed indignation, each wicked outburst of corporate and religious iconoclasm. Vonnegut wasn't somebody to read; Vonnegut was somebody to hang out with. And pay really, really close attention to.

When a new Vonnegut book came out, it was an event every bit as important to me as a new Stones album or Who concert. I collected his books and anything related to him. I scoured used bookstores in vain trying to find a copy of the out-of-print (and hilariously titled) "Canary in a Cathouse," even though all but one of its stories had been reprinted in my tattered copy of "Welcome to the Monkey House." When Vonnegut made a speech on behalf of the Kentucky Civil Liberties Union, I talked my parents into taking me. When he signed a book for me, I was too nervous to speak coherently.

I had become a Kurt Vonnegut nerd.

Kurt Vonnegut made sense to me in a way my teachers, my parish, my society and my world did not. His fiction proved that there was more to life than meets the eye. His characters showed that wars are always bad and almost never good. He told of something called "secular humanism," a philosophy that provided all of the caring, charity, goodness, and consolation of religion without the pesky wars, violence, bigotry, chauvinism, guilt, extortion or crackpotism. He was anti-war when the people of his generation were calling for bigger and greater weapons. He warned about corporations destroying the world back when Dick Cheney was still dodging the draft. He made bitter comedy of religion just when I was beginning to wonder if it was a little cuckoo that everyone seemed to want to kill, steal, cheat, or otherwise commit atrocities in the name of a god who'd been supposedly born to a virgin 2000 years ago, came back to life after dying, and who could now read all of our thoughts. He understood that destroying our planet is a stupid thing to do. He showed that one of the most important things you can do is play with words.

After 9/11, when I felt that our leaders' response was wrong in almost every possible way, when flags flew from practically every automobile, when it became dangerous to voice one's opinion right here on American soil, here's what I felt like: A man without a country. And guess what, at age 83, Vonnegut titled his last book?

Before Kurt Vonnegut, when you wanted to tell somebody off, you said something quaint, like, "go to hell" or "shove it up your ass." After Kurt Vonnegut, you said, "why don't you take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut?" That's exactly the kind of visionary he was. He brought us wampeters, granfalloons, ice-nine, Bokononism, and wide-open beavers. What on earth was there not to love?

And now he's gone.

Some critics have suggested that in order to fully appreciate Kurt Vonnegut, you have to be an angst-ridden, sardonic, teenage boy with a sophomoric sense of humor. Having been just such a creature all my life, I can't exactly refute that assessment, but I don't believe it's true. Kurt Vonnegut has something for everybody. If you want to understand what's wrong with war, read Slaughterhouse-Five. If you want to know why American workers are desperate, read Player Piano. Want some pointers on how to write? Study the introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box. Want some insight into nature, suffering, mental illness, suicide, consumerism, loving kindness, capital punishment, morality, racism, cruelty, social justice, the afterlife, greed, love, sex, or comic timing? It's all there, right in his words. Unlike that beloved grandparent whose memory fades after his death, Kurt Vonnegut left a living record: his books. They will make you cry and they will make you laugh. And you really can't beat that.

No comments: