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."
The America Vonnegut loved -- the one he came home from World War II to look for -- was an optimistic place, he said. When you asked its citizens what class they belonged to, "practically everybody said 'middle,' and there was always a job you could get that was enough to live on." There was "a great system of free public schools."
Now we've got "a government run entirely by people who are beholden to rich people or who are themselves rich." And they have "carte blanche, apparently, to do whatever they want. . . . These people are decisive. Women go for them, because the other guys they know are all so wishy-washy."
A rasping laugh.
"Bap, bap, we do this, we do that. And they don't care what happens next."
He went on in this vein for quite a while. You worried a bit that he would keep going until your time was up.
He didn't. A minute later, he was talking about his Uncle Alex, who'd found it upsetting that human beings "so seldom noticed when they were really happy. Whenever something really nice was going on, he'd stop and say: 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.' "
Vonnegut took to including this advice in graduation addresses: "Please notice when you're happy!"
And what kind of things made him happy?
"A pretty girl. A street musician. A friend who gets off a perfectly wonderful joke." Then: "I'm happy you're here."
You tried to keep it that way.
You told him your teenage daughter had just read "Cat's Cradle," his favorite of his books, and loved it. This backfired.
"I wish grown-ups would read me," Vonnegut said.
The closest he got to a truly happy moment, in an interview that ran for well over an hour, came during a conversation about the firebombing of Dresden in 1945.
He'd been a prisoner of war in Dresden, had huddled in an underground meat locker to survive. Tens of thousands of civilians had died. "Fwuuuh," he said, evoking the whooshing sound made by the Allied incendiary bombs that turned that ancient city first into a fireball, then into a morgue.
Vonnegut incorporated his Dresden experience in "Slaughterhouse-Five," the 1969 novel that made him famous and captivated the Vietnam generation. In it, along with scenes of a Dresden survivor having sex with a Hollywood starlet on the planet Tralfamadore, there is a passage in which the bombing is described as if it were unfolding in reverse. Planes fly backwards over the flaming city. They suck bombs back inside bomb bays as the flames die out. The planes fly back to England; the bombs go back to bomb factories; and in the end, all the airmen become school kids again.
"Oh, I've made a recording of that," Vonnegut said when this was mentioned. All elbows and creaky angles, he bent down, retrieved a CD and hit the "play" button. Out came his Dresden-in-reverse passage, set to jazz.
He sat back on the sofa and grinned. You could almost say he looked exhilarated.
In any case, he finally lit his cigarette.
When the war was over, Vonnegut had trouble getting out of the army. "They found out I could type and they sent me out to Fort Riley and I was typing other people's discharges," he said, laughing at the memory. "And my feeling was then: Please, can't I go home? I've done everything I was supposed to do."
He stopped laughing.
"So that's how I feel now," he said. "Please, I've done everything, you know? Raised kids and all that, worked, tried to do good work -- can't I go home now? And I think about where home is. It's Indianapolis when I was 9 years old, and you can't go back there. But I had a mother and a father, a big sister, a big brother, a dog, a cat -- and yeah, that's where I'd like to go."
If there is a God and if He or She is kind -- which, it must be said, the author of "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" would have been the first to doubt -- that is exactly where Kurt Vonnegut is right now.