So He Goes, Not Quietly

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut could make you laugh and shrug and shake your fist in anger -- all at the same time.

To read Vonnegut in the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially if you were of a certain age (young) and political disposition (appalled by Vietnam), was to discover that someone born in 1922 could share your outrage and bemusement at the insanity of the universe you were supposed to inherit.

And it was also, in a strange way, to be exhilarated.

Here was Vonnegut, who died Wednesday night at 84, evoking the murderous hell of the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, in "Slaughterhouse-Five" or the way the world might end -- in man-made ice, not holy fire -- in "Cat's Cradle." Here he was, coining the phrase that, when you had finished your laughing and fist-shaking, you could employ as a kind of existential Prozac: "So it goes."

It can be a wonderful thing, no matter how despairing the subject, to read a writer who gets it, who can tap into thoughts and feelings you can't articulate yourself.

It can also be a sad thing, when you meet that writer late in his life, to see that his literary antidepressant isn't working anymore -- if it ever really did -- and that there's no way to cheer him up.

"This is Kurt Vonnegut," said the smoke-scarred voice on the telephone. He'd called in response to an interview request made in 2005 through his publisher. He liked to make the arrangements himself, he said, because he liked to know whom he was dealing with.

You showed up at his Manhattan townhouse to be greeted by a man in a worn jacket who looked just like his photographs -- curly hair, scraggly eyebrows, bags under the eyes, white moustache topping sardonic grin -- except that he seemed both taller and frailer, and hadn't bothered with socks.

He asked permission to smoke, in his own living room, then fiddled with a cigarette for at least half an hour without lighting it.

His latest book, "Man Without a Country," was about to come out. It consisted for the most part of previously published or spoken musings, collaged together by his editor at Seven Stories Press. "I wouldn't have had the energy to do it," Vonnegut said, "and so essentially this should say, 'by Dan Simon.' "

Why the title?

"The America I loved is gone."

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