Mad humanist

In Kurt Vonnegut's world, free will is an open question, life is poignant and pointless and kindness is appreciated above all else.


I first laid eyes on Kurt Vonnegut in an airport terminal. A friend in college had wangled me a job as Vonnegut’s driver when he came to speak to us in 1990. A rangy 6-foot-2, he stood hunched over a pair of crutches. He had an ankle cast on one foot, a well-worn Reebok sneaker on the other. Draped over his shoulders was an old trench coat, and his moppy hair and droopy mustache were perfectly still. From a distance he looked like a scarecrow with Mark Twain’s face.

As we drove toward the campus, he chain-smoked unfiltered Pall Malls, dropping butts out the window despite the open ashtray. I couldn’t stop staring at him, which almost proved fatal when I nearly drove us into a highway construction site. I swerved into the path of an 18-wheeler in the next lane, then out of its way when the driver blared the horn. I apologized to Vonnegut. He didn’t seem to mind. “I figured you knew what you were doing,” he said with a wheezy laugh. Like his characters, he seemed resigned to forces outside his control.

Prisoner of war, volunteer fireman, Saab dealer, General Electric PR man, Mark Twain on Mars — Kurt Vonnegut has been many things. As a novelist, he has been called many more: “impatient humanitarian,” pessimist, mad scientist, optimist, “amiable Cassandra,” culture hero, science-fiction writer. At his best, Vonnegut is a wizard, each novel a new Oz built to serve his larger purpose: to “catch people before they become generals and presidents and so forth and poison their minds with humanity.” In Vonnegut’s world, free will is an open question, life is poignant and pointless and kindness, even when it is a lie, is appreciated above all else. He has poisoned a lot of us over the years, but most of all, what distinguishes Vonnegut is that he makes the effort.

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On Armistice Day, 1922, Kurt Vonnegut was born into a German-descended family of Indianapolis architects. He studied chemistry at Cornell, but pneumonia forced him to leave without his degree. He served as an infantryman in World War II, an experience that would sorely test his faith in science and shape his literary vision. At 22, Vonnegut withstood both the suicide of his mother and his own capture at the Battle of the Bulge. He was imprisoned in the German city of Dresden.

Less than two months later, the Allied forces firebombed Dresden, an event around which Vonnegut would construct what is perhaps his best-known book, “Slaughterhouse-Five” — named for the building that held him while the firestorm raged through the streets. It would take Vonnegut 25 years to come to literary terms with the bombing of Dresden. After World War II, he married Jane Cox, and studied briefly for a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Chicago. He again left school without a degree, moving to Schenectady, N.Y., to work in public relations for General Electric. By 1950, Vonnegut had begun publishing short stories in magazines. On the advice of Knox Burger, the fiction editor of Collier’s magazine, he left GE to pursue a career as a freelance writer. Though much of Vonnegut’s work is an elaborate argument against the idea of luck, his timing was undeniably good. “In the Golden Age of Magazines, inexcusable trash was in such great demand that it led to the invention of the electric typewriter, and incidentally financed my escape from Schenectady,” he once wrote.

In a series of short stories, Vonnegut began sketching out his vision of a fractured and warped world. But it was still just a sketch. His first novel, “Player Piano” (1952), was warmed-over Orwell and Huxley, and escaped notice. Then in 1958, Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, died of cancer, just two days after her husband had died in a train crash. The Vonneguts took custody of Alice’s three eldest children.

Seven years after the artless “Player Piano,” Vonnegut seemed to find his voice — that voice — in 1959′s “Sirens of Titan,” a novel dense with riffs on military culture and free will. The opening lines:

Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.

But mankind wasn’t always so lucky.

Less than a century ago men and women did not have access to the puzzle boxes within them. They could not even name one of the fifty-three portals to the soul.

Gimcrack religions were big business.

“Sirens” weaves a tale that is goofy, but rivetingly told: After driving his spaceship into a cosmic phenomenon (and narrative gimmick) called a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, an aristocrat named Winston Niles Rumfoord becomes no longer a man, but a “wave phenomenon” — traveling in an orbit from the sun to a distant point in the constellation Betelgeuse, and appearing on Earth once every 59 days.

Rumfoord gains godlike powers of telepathy. Because he can see the future, he foretells it for mankind. He taps an unlikely hero, Malachi Constant, to be the prophet of a new religion. After outlandish events that carry him to Mars and Mercury, Constant returns to Earth bearing a message of cosmic meaninglessness for the masses who have been told to expect him. The message is succinct, and very Vonnegut: “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

The novel was unique, but it did little to help Vonnegut ward off his first and most vexing label: science-fiction writer. Someone was missing his jokes. A decade later he would write, “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ ever since, and I would like out, particularly because so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

In the novels that followed, Vonnegut opted for settings that were only slightly more earthly. “Mother Night” (1962) told the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr. — an American Nazi propagandist during World War II, double agent and “citizen of nowhere at all.” In “Cat’s Cradle” (1963), science is an agent of destruction, religion a comforting lie; the story is a parable about the end of the world, like most of Vonnegut’s work. “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” (1965) introduces some of Vonnegut’s recurring characters — millionaire Eliot Rosewater, who joins a different volunteer fire department every time he gets drunk, and Vonnegut’s alter ego, sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout. The novel brings this recurring message, from Rosewater: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Vonnegut packed several dozen chapters into books with fewer than 200 pages. Some critics scorned him, citing the influence of television or accusing him of pandering to youth with “dormitory profundity.” But Vonnegut explained it this way: “I find sections of my book constructed like jokes, and they’re not very long. And I suddenly realize the joke is told, and that I’d spoil the joke if I were to go past.” Vonnegut was perfecting the art of the tall tale. His put-ons had more in common with Mark Twain than with the head games of postmodernists like Thomas Pynchon or John Barth. Vonnegut created a fun house, but the message was not lost there.

In 1967, Vonnegut wrote about the new Random House dictionary for the New York Times Book Review. The first sentence could have been aimed at his critics: “I wonder now what Ernest Hemingway’s dictionary looked like, since he got along so well with dinky words that everybody can spell and truly understand.” At the time, Vonnegut was benefiting from the publishing revolution of paperbacks — the only form in which his books were available. But when publisher Sam Lawrence read the review, his firm, Seymour Lawrence, gave Vonnegut a three-book contract and agreed to republish his previous five books in hardcover. Soon Vonnegut could be found beyond the drugstore. He was headed for the ivory tower.

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Like the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Vonnegut’s so-called masterpiece, “Slaughterhouse-Five” (1969), may not be his best work. But the book, a cathartic statement he wrote after a trip back to Dresden on a Guggenheim Fellowship, was huge: a profitable ticket to many a literature syllabus and that rarest of things, a popular and critical success. (It came in at No. 18 on the Modern Library’s list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century.)

In “Slaughterhouse-Five,” a soldier named Billy Pilgrim witnesses a massacre perpetrated by his own countrymen and becomes “unstuck” in time. Aided by the advanced extraterrestrial civilization that kidnaps him and places him in a zoo, Pilgrim comes to understand time as if it is a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, with all moments laid out on the range, coexisting in perpetuity. The realization that war, like life, can be brutal and nonsensical is greeted with a shrug: So it goes.

Also like the Beatles, Vonnegut found himself banned. “Slaughterhouse-Five” was burned in Drake, N.D. It was banned for its religious references in Rochester, Mich., and for its “foul language” in all of Kentucky. The outcry was hard to square with Vonnegut’s perspective on things: “You can teach savagery to people … They may need the savagery, but it’s bad for the neighbors. I prefer to teach gentleness.”

Writing in the Saturday Review in 1971, critic Alfred Kazin said, “Vonnegut is always at home with characters who are not with it in our kind of world, people whose total helplessness and inability to explain anything have indeed made them unworldly, extraterrestrial, open to mischief from outer space.” But Vonnegut himself was seen as being extremely with it. Published near the height of American involvement in Vietnam, “Slaughterhouse-Five” brought on a Vonnegut Zeitgeist: His name became identified with pacifism and black humor. He became a hip father figure to baby boomers, who made a campus hero of him. He took up a post at the University of Iowa writers’ workshop; at Harvard, there were 15 applicants for every slot in his class.

In a series of profiles, Vonnegut was hailed for spanning the generation gap. Never mind the fact that he told Life magazine that baby boomers were “the most conceited generation in history.” (“They’re bright, but I’m not sure they’re competent,” he added.) The new label stuck — “an articulate bridge across the generational chasm,” as the New York Times put it. What Vonnegut offered was indignation in the guise of whimsy. He was impatient with piety and sham, and he was funny about it. Vonnegut, however, was just as wary of labels as ever.

He was on the lecture circuit, capitalizing on his newfound popularity, when it hit him. After a speech, Vonnegut was asked what right he had, as “a leader of American young people,” to “teach them to be so cynical and pessimistic.” As he recounted in a 1974 essay, “I was not a leader of American young people. I was a writer who should have been home and writing, rather than seeking easy money and applause.” It was one of the many honest self-observations that would become part of his charm. Labels continued to accrue, but Vonnegut dodged them: “I have found that a humanist is a person who is tremendously interested in human beings. My dog is a humanist.”

In 1971, the dean of the University of Chicago showed “Cat’s Cradle” to the anthropology department, and Vonnegut finally got his master’s degree. He left wife Jane Cox the same year, moved to New York and settled into his celebrity. A play he’d written, “Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” opened in Greenwich Village and moved to Broadway. By 1972, “Slaughterhouse-Five” had made him a millionaire.

But Vonnegut didn’t stop training his scientist’s eye on American culture. His reporting on the 1972 Republican National Convention for Harper’s magazine: “If I were a visitor from another planet, I would say … the two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers. The people do not acknowledge this. They claim membership in two imaginary parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, instead. Both imaginary parties are bossed by Winners. When Republicans battle Democrats, this much is certain: Winners will win.”

His next novel, “Breakfast of Champions” (1973), took aim at the slow rotting of the American dream. Local businessman Dwayne Hoover is going insane with “bad chemicals,” and Kilgore Trout lights the fuse with a story that convinces Dwayne he is the lone human in a world of robots. The novel is peppered with weird illustrations by the author, who yearns for “symbols which have not been poisoned by great sins our nation has committed, such as slavery and genocide and criminal neglect, or by tinhorn commercial greed and cunning.” The novel is blunt and heartbreakingly funny. Vonnegut himself appears near the end, as a sort of puppeteer. He offers this candid bit of mono-dialogue:

“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself.

“I know,” I said.

“You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I said.

“I know,” I said.

Honest talk of suicide emerges the next year, in a collection of essays, and again in his autobiographies. In his later novels — “Slapstick” (1976), an homage to his sister, “Jailbird” (1979) and “Hocus Pocus” (1990) — Vonnegut stands his thematic ground, dealing with human loneliness and resiliency, power and politics. The evolutionary journey of “Galapagos” (1985) brings Vonnegut to a culmination of his vision. Thanks to that Vonnegut staple — apocalypse — a group of tourists is stranded on the Galapagos Islands, where Darwin formulated his ideas about progressive adaptation. These lucky people become the progenitors of a new human race. Over time, their oversize brains shrink, sexual interests atrophy and their hands become flippers: All the physical traits that got humans into so much trouble are naturally deselected, gone.

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There are those who say Vonnegut lost it after the ’60s, but I don’t think so. It’s true that sometimes, in between the lines of prose, an agonizingly pessimistic and frustrated writer peeks through. Vonnegut didn’t flatter aging baby boomers by becoming fashionable; he didn’t sign on to the egocentrism of the ’70s, nor did he endorse the obliviousness of the ’80s. In life he continues to speak his mind, and his literature retains a manic spark. His fables are woven into a denser fabric, but the territory is familiar: Isolated narrators speak to us from perches in the not-so-distant future, at the end of the world.

Vonnegut married photographer Jill Krementz in 1979 and began opening up. In his two books of autobiographical sketches, “Palm Sunday” (1981) and “Fates Worse Than Death” (1992), Vonnegut deals with his depression and the burden of family suicide. He admits to his own attempt in 1984. He was found, full of pills and booze, before it was too late: “I went briefly nuts in the 1980s in an effort to get out of life entirely and wound up playing Eightball in a locked ward for thirty days instead.”

In “Palm Sunday,” Vonnegut also discusses film versions of his novels: George Roy Hill’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which Vonnegut enjoyed, and Mark Robson’s “Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” which he despised. Hollywood has approached Vonnegut’s turf again and again, but so far, the results have been mostly disastrous. The author’s voice is missed in the translation to celluloid, and the stories comes off as arid, soulless. This spring, we’ll see if the trend improves any with “Breakfast of Champions,” starring Bruce Willis and Nick Nolte. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

In 1997, “Timequake” appeared. Vonnegut says it is his last original novel, though his publisher is planning a collection of the author’s early short fiction, called “Bagombo Snuff Box,” for this summer. An intertwining of fiction and autobiography, “Timequake” offers touching portraits of Vonnegut’s first wife and brother, who both died recently. The book also brings Vonnegut together with alter ego Kilgore Trout for one last laugh. At the end of a 50-year career, with 19 books to his credit, the last laugh is what it all boils down to: Nobody writes about doomsday better than Vonnegut.

He has never pretended to know the meaning of it all, but he did let Trout take a stab at it once. Seeing the question “What is the purpose of life?” scrawled on a bathroom wall in “Breakfast of Champions,” Trout has this ready answer: “To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you fool.”

It’s also a pretty nice job description for a novelist — at least when the novelist is Kurt Vonnegut.

Frank Houston is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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