Novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 84; Keen Observer of Humankind

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 84, a prolific novelist and short story writer who relied on bitter humor and a whimsical sense of the absurd to engage the pain and suffering of war, the innate cruelty of humankind and the tragic nature of existence, died April 11 in a Manhattan hospital.

He had suffered irreversible brain injuries after a recent fall at his home in Manhattan, said his wife, photographer Jill Krementz.

Mr. Vonnegut's 14 novels include some of the most acclaimed works of modern American literature, none more notable than "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1969), his fictional effort to convey his experience of the apocalyptic firebombing of Dresden, Germany, in 1945. The novel and the 1972 movie of the same name, directed by George Roy Hill, made Mr. Vonnegut a favorite on college campuses, particularly among opponents of the Vietnam War.

"Slaughterhouse-Five," among other Vonnegut books, remains required reading in high school and college English classes across the country. It was selected No. 18 on the Modern Library's list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

A tall, lean man with a mop of unruly hair and a rumpled look about him, Mr. Vonnegut remained a popular public figure, lecturing, writing and giving interviews on what he saw as the insanity of war and the dehumanizing effects of technology, materialism and other staples of modern life.

Novelist Larry McMurtry once described him as "a humorist, with a humorist's passionate hatreds and equally passionate loves." Other admirers described him as a modern-day Mark Twain, an allusion to the love-hate relationship with life that characterized both writers. He was funny despite battling depression so severe he attempted suicide in 1984.

What he saw as a young prisoner of war at Dresden was so horrendous that Mr. Vonnegut felt compelled to make his novel otherworldly, relying in part on the conventions of science fiction -- conventions he had used in earlier novels. The novel's hero, a soldier named Billy Pilgrim, witnesses a slaughter perpetrated by his own people and "has come unstuck" chronologically. He finds himself bouncing back and forth in a time warp where past, present and future are simultaneous.

In one scene, the bombing happens in reverse, the planes flying backward over a burning German city, sucking up the explosives into their bomb bays and snuffing out the flames below. The bombs are shipped back to the United States, where they are dismantled and buried, "so they would never hurt anybody ever again."

"He writes about the most excruciatingly painful things," Michael Crichton wrote in 1969, reviewing "Slaughterhouse-Five" for The New Republic. "Nobody else writes books on these subjects; they are inaccessible to normal novelistic approaches."

Some reviewers found the novel sophomoric and preachy. " 'Slaughterhouse-Five' is very good when it's good -- and very bad when it's bad," novelist Daniel Stern wrote in The Washington Post.

Mr. Vonnegut, a fourth-generation German-American, was born Nov. 11, 1922, in Indianapolis. He studied biochemistry at Cornell University before transferring to the Carnegie Institute of Technology.

Soon after enrolling, he was inducted into the Army and sent to Germany as a combat scout with the 106th Infantry Division. His mother killed herself shortly before he left, on Mother's Day.

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