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.

Captured during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, he was assigned to a prisoner of war work group in Dresden. The beautiful old city was unscathed at that point because it had no military significance, but on Feb. 13, 1945, the Allied High Command unleashed three waves of British and U.S. bombers on Dresden. Saturating the city with high explosives, followed by hundreds of thousands of incendiaries, the bombers ignited a firestorm that claimed more than 100,000 victims. The city burned for a week.

"We didn't get to see the fire storm," Mr. Vonnegut later wrote. "We were in a cool meat-locker under a slaughterhouse with our six guards and ranks and ranks of dressed cadavers of cattle, pigs, horses and sheep."

When he and his fellow prisoners emerged, "everything was gone but the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been baked like gingerbread men. So we were put to work as corpse miners, breaking into shelters, bringing bodies out."

That experience seared itself into Mr. Vonnegut's subconscious, although it would take him 25 years to express what he had seen and felt. It was the Vietnam War, he would explain later, that allowed him to "finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis."

After his discharge, Mr. Vonnegut switched from biochemistry to anthropology, studying at the University of Chicago for two years without taking a degree. He also worked as a police reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau.

From 1947 to 1950, he worked in public relations for General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y., a job he hated. He quit to become a full-time freelance writer.

For a number of years, he made a precarious living selling Saabs on Cape Cod and short fiction to the Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Fantasy and Science Fiction and other publications, "when the country was short-story crazy," he told Salon in 1999. The first collection of his short stories was "Canary in a Cathouse" (1961).

He relied on his GE experience for his first novel, "Player Piano" (1952), a black-humor satire about a group of corporate scientists and engineers who attempt to automate everything.

His second novel, "The Sirens of Titan" (1959), is lesser known than his other works, although he said it was his favorite. The novel tells the story of extraterrestrial forces that arrange the whole course of human history to provide an intergalactic traveler with a spare part for his spacecraft.

"Mother Night" (1961), his third novel, is the story of a World War II American intelligence agent named Howard W. Campbell Jr., whose virtuous messages home are coded through virulently anti-Semitic radio broadcasts he makes for the Nazis. In his introduction to the 1966 hardcover edition, Mr. Vonnegut offered what he considered the moral of the story: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

His next book, "Cat's Cradle" (1963), established Mr. Vonnegut as something more than a writer of quirky science-fiction tales. It is the story of Felix Hoenikker, a physicist and one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, whose innocent pursuit of truth leads him to a scientific breakthrough called ice-nine, a catalyst capable of transforming all the liquid in the world into solid ice.

The satirical "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or Pearls Before Swine" (1965), introduces Kilgore Trout, an unsuccessful science fiction writer and Mr. Vonnegut's alter ego. The novel's hero, wealthy philanthropist Eliot P. Rosewater, delivers a speech to a convention of science fiction writers, words that would seem to reflect Mr. Vonnegut's sentiments.

"You're the only ones crazy enough to know that life is a space voyage . . . that will last for billions of years," the fictional Rosewater says. "You're the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really know what machines do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us. You're the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distance without limit, over mysteries that will never die, over the fact that we are right now determining whether the space voyage for the next billion years or so is going to Heaven or Hell."

After "Slaughterhouse-Five" -- whose full title is "Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death" -- Mr. Vonnegut continued writing novels, including "Breakfast of Champions" (1973) and "Deadeye Dick" (1983), but less frequently after the 1970s. He published articles and essays as well as columns for the political journal In These Times, until shortly before his death.

He hated the Iraq war and said so frequently. "By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East?" he wrote in one of his In These Times columns. "Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas in December."

A collection of his nonfiction, "A Man Without a Country" (2005), was a best-seller. All of his novels remain in print; five have been made into movies.

His marriage to Jane Marie Cox ended in divorce.

Survivors include Krementz, his wife of 27 years; three children from his first marriage, Dr. Mark Vonnegut of Milton, Mass., Edith Vonnegut Squibb of Barnstable, Mass., and Nanette Vonnegut Prior of Northampton, Mass., and an adopted daughter, Lily Vonnegut of Sagaponack, N.Y., from his second marriage. He also adopted his sister's three young children after she died of cancer in 1958.

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