Kurt Vonnegut was a legend of the '60s and early '70s, when the campus bookstores stocked more copies of "Cat's Cradlle" and "Slaughterhouse-Five" than Camus and Satre, and a self-respecting free-thinker would rather part with his fatigue jacket and sandals than his copy of "Mother Night."
Now Kurt Vonnegut wants to be a good citizen.
"During the Carter administration, I decided I wanted to be a speechwriter," he says. "I was at a cocktail party with a friend of mine, a southern novelist who had done some speechwriting for governors and all that. Two weeks later I got a call from the White House, from Hendrik Hertzberg and Anne Wexler, and they said come on down and talk. So I did. I thought it was an act of good citizenship, really, to improve on the rhetoric of whatever our government had to say."
He had lunch at the White House, "and they said, 'Look, send us brief ideas, things that are on your mind, three or four paragraphs.' So I started keeping a diary, a couple of things a day, and finally one of them became the final paragraph in the State of the Union address in 1980.
"I had been talking to Fritz Mondale about the Constitution, the process of checks and balances, whether this 18th-century document could be made viable in the present. I said yes it can: The fourth force mentioned in the Constitution ahead of the other three powers, which can balance the other three, is 'we the people.' That's what I dealt with in my paragraph.
"But then Afghanistan was invaded. And I was dropped."
And Vonnegut suddenly erupts into his trademark chain-smoker's laugh, a throaty chuckle escalating rapidly into a phlegm-wrenching cough, like a bassoon half full of Jell-O. But even as he is cackling in damp-eyed convulsion at his own humor, he is looking slyly around this hotel room above the arid moonscape of L'Enfant Plaza to see if anybody is laughing along with him.
They are. And they've been doing it regularly over the 30 years in which Vonnegut, 58 -- erstwhile reporter, public-relations man and Saab dealer -- produced nine novels, a story collection, a TV script, a play and two collections of nonfiction, the latest of which, "Palm Sunday," was published this spring. Not to mention bankrolling most of the musical adapted from his 1964 novel, "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," which opened last night at Arena Stage and brought Vonnegut to Washington with his wife, photographer Jill Krementz, 41, and his daughter Edith, who produced the original off-Broadway production in New York.
"Rosewater" won't elicit any speechwriting offers from the Reagan administration. The satirical pleas for social compassion includes a long, impassioned tirade about how the rich keep secret the location of the great "money river" that flows through American society. "So many of these successful men who have come in with the Reagan administration have found the money river and are making a Darwinian virtue of having found it, as if God had intended that. I'm an anti-Darwinist in human affairs. You know -- the idea that be screwing each other back and forth economically, we'll improve the race. That by cutting off people's food supply, they'll become more enterprising organisms."
The Vonnegutian cosmos is hardly flattering to the Fortune 500 crowd. He draws nightmare mindscapes of technology gone berserk: the completely mechanized society of "Player Piano"; the nefarious science which creates "ice-nine," a crystal that makes water solid and destroys the earth in "Cat's Cradle"; the fire-bombing of Dresden in "Slaughterhouse-Five."
Against this sinister panoply of greed grown omnipotent through machine muscle, Vonnegut holds up the hopeful possibility of small human triumphs, individual acts of compassion which redeem the world of his fiction even as they appear ludicrously outmatched. Eliot Rosewater, deranged philanthropist of "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," squanders a multimillion-dollar fortune on the squalid and boring scum of a small Indiana town; in "Slaughterhouse," Billy Pilgrim creates a world of kindness in beatific hallucinations amid the surreal atrocities of Dresden. Bokonon, the religious liberator-despot of "Cat's Cradle," brings bliss to his believers by teaching them to touch the soles of their feet together.
Sitting in a too-small hotel chair, constantly refolding his long, bony limbs, Vonnegut looks, by turns, like an underweight Mark Twain or a mummified stork. Standing to gangle over his room-service dinner ("I ordered you four chicken salad sandwiches, a ham and cheese and two coffees," says the peasant-skirted Krementz, before going downstairs. "Try to leave some for me"), he seems such a self-consciously comical figure in his tan whip-cord suit and buff buck shoes that it is easy to forget how earnest he is.
Sucking relentlessly on pack after pack of Pall Malls, he describes with pride his work with the American Civil Liberties Union ("I'm a big First Amendment man"), the PEN writers' aid group and his contributions to anti-nuclear demonstrations. And although he wants to be thought of as a joke-maker and satirist ("there was a British critic who said that I put bitter coatings on sugar pills, and I consider that fair"), Citizen Vonnegut is deadly serious about his black-humor fables.
Satirists, he says, "have some idea of the proper condition of man. I have one and I've been explicit about it." He learned about it while studying anthropology at the University of Chicago: "the folk society, of such a size that everyone knew everyone else very well, everyone had blood ties somewhere within the society, and there was general agreement on the culture. I have hankered for such a society."
Human beings, he believes, need well-defined rituals to certify the manhood and womanhood of its citizens, and a social structure that gives them a sense of place and purpose. But he says the only rite of passage left in American society, besides armed warfare, is the driver's license: "We have a puberty ceremony which can be revoked. That's why people are so shattered when their licenses are revoked -- they've been demoted back to childhood!"
His own childhood, he says, was the origin of his celebrated pessimism. "I suppose I was born that sort of person because when I read Voltaire, Swift, Shaw or Twain, there was a shock of recognition that was genetic as much as anything else."
He was born in Indianapolis into a long line of proud and successful German American citizens, although the anti-German sentiment during and after World War I "so shamed and dismayed my parents," Vonnegut has said, that they neglected teaching him the German language or literature: "They volunteered to make me ignorant and rootless as proof of their patriotism." His father was a noted architect ("we did not spend much time together, and conversations were arch and distant") and his mother a cultivated aspiring writer. He went to Cornell ("I was at the bottom of every class I was in because I was studying chemistry which I had no gift for at all") and then joined the Army during World War II. Within a few months in 1944, his mother died from a possibly accidental overdose of sleeping pills, and he was captured by the Germans and taken to Dresden, where he witnessed the famous fire-bombing which became the central event in "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1969).
Returning in 1945, he enrolled at the University of Chicago, studied anthropology, went to work at the Chicago City News Bureau and then moved to Schenectady, N.Y., as a public-relations man for General Electric. His loathing for the trade is now legendary. As he told an anti-nuke rally in Washington two years ago, "the so-called profession of public relations, an American invention, stands entirely disgraced today."
In the early '50s, he quit G.E. moved to Cape Cod, and began his 15-year apprenticeship as a free-lance writer. His first novel, Player Piano," was published in 1951, and he produced a number of short stories and plays, including the first dramatic piece for Sammy Davis Jr., a General Electric Playhouse story called "D.P." about a black orphan in a German orphanage who has never seen anyone else who was black.
In the early '60s he took a job at an ad agency in Boston, commuting daily from the Cape. "That wasn't working out too well, and at lunch hour one day I saw a truck going by loaded up with these little Easter eggs which I knew weren't VWs. They were Saabs, I decided I was going to get rich selling cars on the Cape." It lasted for two years, but by then the good citizen was becoming an established name.
His efforts have earned him fame and indignities. His books have been banned or burned for suspected obscenity in some communities, but he has topped the best-seller lists repeatedly, all of his work is still in print and he was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Critics have praised him as a satirical genius or patronized him as a cult figure for the young, a purveyor of Cynical Chic.
"I'm finally sick of this," he says of the youth-market charge. "It's a lazy way for critics to say that something is wrong with me without having to describe it in detail. So they say that I'm just the kind of person that immature readers enjoy. But children don't buy hardcover books. 'Jailbird' [his 1979 novel based on a fictional character from the Nixon administration] was number one on the bestseller list in hardcover practically as long as 'Sophie's Choice' was. Those weren't children stepping up buying the books."
Along with the fame came recurrent bouts of depression, although "it stopped happening to me with any frequency about 10 years ago." Since then, he has also quit drinking. "If I'd had a drink at lunch, I'd be deeply depressed now. I used to drink to get smarter and funnier. One time, at a dinner party, I was put next to Jacqueline Kennedy. Boy, I drank everything that was served, just to become more sparkling and witty. I think they took me home on a shutter.
"I tell you what fools you: The brilliance you feel after the first martini is genuine. You really are smart and wonderful and everything. It must be like the rush before an epileptic seizure, which is almost worth it, I guess.
"I used to think I got depressed over Attica or My Lai or whatever. But then I started to figure out that it happened every 28 days or every 17 days or whatever it was. But that cycle has pretty much stopped."
He had ample opportunity for sadness in those years. His sister and her husband died within a day of each other, and Vonnegut -- who already had three children of his own -- adopted three of theirs. His deep affection for his sister became the inspiration for his 1976 novel, "Slapstick," about male and female twins who together constitute one supermind. And his eldest son Mark, now a doctor in Boston, had a mental breakdown which he described in his own 1976 book, "Eden Express." Although Mark attributes his illness to chemical disorders, Vonnegut thinks it may also have been due to his abandoning his family and wife of 34 years, Jane Cox, from whom he was divorsed in 1979, the year he married Krementz. "You can drive somebody crazy that way," Vonnegut says.
He's working steadily and happily now, although he says that "everything I had intended to do with my life, I had accomplished by the time I wrote 'Slaughterhouse-Five.'" Many writers, he says, "get themselves in trouble" when they continue to work past their prime, but Vonnegut does not think he's there. And, of course, he has a multi-book contract with Dell, to whom he is proud of being "faithful" for 20 years.
Vonnegut's current work in progress is called "'Dead-Eye Dick,' and is about a guy who is 38 when the book begins, but when he was 12 he was fooling around with his father's rifle and he shot a pregnant woman." "Vonnegut says the inspriation came from "doing just amazingly dangerous things with guns when I was a kid. We were a National Rifle Association family, we knew how to handle guns. But meanwhile, I was f------ around, there's nothing I wasn't doing with guns. [Another great wheezing gurgle of laughter.] I opened fire on a herd of sheep! Jeez, I put a bullet into a wing chair in the front living room. The slug is still in there."
He gets testy at the suggestion that gun culture might be a fashionable subject right now."Well, I'm a citizen of this country. I suppose I'm as entitled as anyone else is to write about its concerns. The first time I was evern mentioned in The New York Review of Books, there was an attack on several of my books all at once.It said that I just simply followed fashion, whatever was hot at the time. 'Player Piano' [a grim satire of burgeoning technology] was given as an example. But I wrote 'Player Piano' before the word automation had entered the language. What a follower of fashion I am." The pointless "ferocity" of many literary critics, he says, is "like an assault on a hot fudge sundae or a chocolate eclair."
And if his topics seem unsophisticated to some, well, the few truths that life offers have a brutal simplicity:
"There's not that much to talk about. Life is like a sex shop: When they have to dress a window, it's pitiful how little they can put out there."