Time is moving backward in Kurt Vonnegut's living room. The writer perches on a sofa and grins.
It has been 36 years since he published "Slaughterhouse-Five," his breakthrough novel about a time-and-space traveler named Billy Pilgrim, the planet Tralfamadore and the firebombing of Dresden by Allied forces during World War II. Vonnegut's guest has mentioned a passage in which Vonnegut describes the bombing of a German city unfolding in reverse.
"Oh, I've made a recording of that -- to music," he says. He unfolds his lean, 82-year-old frame, locates the CD, hits "play."
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backward from an airfield in England, the voice of a somewhat younger Vonnegut intones.
Sounds of rain and thunder fade into background jazz. A female vocalist wails along.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. . . .
The recorded Vonnegut keeps reading as women in factories dismantle those containers and separate their contents into harmless minerals for return to the ground. The present-day Vonnegut lights the cigarette he's been fondling for half an hour.
The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. . . .
Time travel seems to agree with him. Right now, he's looking pretty cheerful for a self-described "obviously unhappy" man.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. has made a life's work of being unhappy with the world.
He has been unhappy with it in every one of his more than 20 books, including his latest, "A Man Without a Country," a slim nonfiction compilation published in September.
In it, he asserts that the subject of all great books is "what a bummer it is to be a human being."
There's not the slightest reason to doubt the sincerity of his unhappiness. This is a man who not only has killed off the human race in his fiction -- in "Cat's Cradle," by means of ice-nine, a scientific breakthrough designed to make life mud-free for the U.S. Marines -- but who has tried for decades to kill himself by smoking unfiltered Pall Malls. Periodically, he threatens to sue the cigarettes' makers because he is still breathing.
In 1984, he essayed a more direct method, pills and alcohol. He wasn't crying out for help, he told an interviewer some years after he was rescued and pumped out. He'd simply had enough.
Yet here he still is, still smoking, still angry, still grasping at stray reasons to live.
"Great works of art, I was so grateful for them," he says, beginning to enumerate those reasons. He mentions Picasso's "Guernica," the plays of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, the movie "Casablanca." Leaning forward, he quotes loosely from memory:
" 'Tell me, Meezter Rrrrick, what brought you to Casablanca?'
" 'I came here for my health, for the waters.'
" 'But Meezter Rrrrick, there are no waters in Casablanca.'
" 'I was misinformed.' "
An almost silent laugh. Then: "Such a wonderful word -- 'I was misinformed.' "
Beyond art, he says, he lives for what he calls "mini-epiphanies -- very nice events that last maybe 10 minutes."
"A pretty girl. A street musician. A friend who gets off a perfectly wonderful joke I'd never heard before."
Or just today, perhaps, the chance to play that "Slaughterhouse-Five" reading, which he'd recorded a cappella but which was set to music by an Australian fan.
"We went platinum in Melbourne!"
More laughter. He's joking, of course.
Vonnegut has said repeatedly that he has written his last book. This has not yet proved true, though he hasn't published a novel in almost a decade, and with each passing year the odds get better that we've seen the last from this inventive, outspoken, unclassifiable American original.
He has also said he did his best work before he was 55, and "my life is essentially a garage sale now of stuff I wrote a long time ago." This is an accurate assessment.
"A Man Without a Country" was woven together by Seven Stories Press editor Dan Simon (to whom Vonnegut assigns the lion's share of credit). It is a pastiche of speeches the author has given over the years and short articles he's written for the left-leaning weekly In These Times. The book has landed, somewhat improbably, on various nonfiction bestseller lists. But it's hard to imagine what a reader would make of it, coming to it cold.
Far better to begin with that "stuff" from long ago.
Vonnegut was born in Indiana in 1922. "I think about where home is: It's Indianapolis when I was 9 years old," he says. And why not? He had "a mother and a father, a big sister, a big brother, a dog, a cat." If time travel were truly an option, he'd take himself back right now.
At Shortridge High, he wrote for the school's daily paper; he loved the instant feedback. His father, an architect who'd been hurt badly by the Depression, said he wouldn't pay for Kurt to go to college unless he studied chemistry, "for which I had no gift whatsoever." He enrolled at Cornell in 1940.
In March 1943, he enlisted in the Army.
In May 1944, his mother committed suicide.
In December 1944, he was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge.
In February 1945, he survived the Dresden bombing by huddling with other POWs in an underground meat locker as the city burned.
After the war, he studied anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for the City News Bureau, a legendary boot camp for reporters. Needing more money -- he'd gotten married and had a kid -- he wound up doing publicity for General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y.
He loved GE. "The machinists were so good," he recalls, "and the engineers really knew what they were doing." He loved the fact that the company president -- "250,000 employees, plants all over the country" -- had come up through the GE apprentice program. "It was a family," he says.
But he'd started writing short stories for magazines like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. They paid well for fiction in those long-gone days, "so I quit and moved to Cape Cod. And that's what I was going to do for the rest of my life, write short stories for the magazines."
No such luck.
It wasn't long before TV began to undercut the fiction-oriented magazines. So Vonnegut turned from stories to novels. Between 1952 and 1965 he published "Player Piano," "The Sirens of Titan," "Mother Night," "Cat's Cradle" and "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater." He sold a couple as paperback originals because you got paid faster that way.
He opened a Saab dealership to supplement his writing income.
"Cat's Cradle" in particular -- Vonnegut's favorite among his books -- did fairly well, and he began to gather a cult following. But the literary establishment paid him no mind. By the mid-'60s, he says, "I was almost entirely out of print." Then "a guy named Seymour Lawrence took notice of me."
Lawrence, an independent publisher who worked with Delacorte Press, put those early novels back in bookstores. He also gave Vonnegut a contract for the book that would make him famous -- and restore the cataclysm of Dresden to its rightful place on history's atrocity charts.
'So It Goes'
On the night of Feb. 13-14, 1945, as Vonnegut crouched in that meat locker below a Dresden slaughterhouse, wave after wave of British bombers dropped 650,000 incendiary bombs and nearly 1,500 tons of high explosives on the city, deliberately creating a firestorm so intense that its heat alone made cars burst into flames. No one knows how many died, but estimates range from 35,000 to well over 100,000. The city burned for a week.
Dresden had no military significance. It was, Vonnegut has written, "a famous world art treasure, like Paris or Vienna or Prague, and about as sinister as a wedding cake."
"Fwuuuh," he says now, evoking the whooshing noise made by the incendiary bombs. After the night bombing, American bombers followed up with daytime runs "to make the firemen stay underground."
Because the Dresden bombing was just a small part of the massive Allied campaign intended to weaken German resistance by obliterating cities -- and because it was overshadowed by the atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- it almost disappeared from the historical record.
As for Vonnegut . . .
Well, let's just say Dresden didn't make him happy.
Eventually he found a way to tell the story his own way.
He gave the starring role to Billy Pilgrim, an innocent who finds himself "unstuck in time." He sent his hero skipping from the present to the past to the future, assigning him both the grim duty of witnessing Dresden and the happier task of mating with a film star named Montana Wildhack on the planet Tralfamadore.
And whenever someone died -- whether it was Billy's gun-loving father, shot dead in a deer-hunting accident, or tens of thousands of civilians fried in a man-made hell -- Vonnegut ushered them offstage with his famous tag line: "So it goes."
"Slaughterhouse-Five" came out in 1969, near the height of the Vietnam War. It earned its author both the attention of elite critics and a mass readership. Vietnam had a great deal to do with this, according to Peter Reed, emeritus professor of English at the University of Minnesota, who has made Vonnegut something of a specialty.
"There was a whole generation hungry for this sort of thing," Reed says. "They liked the irreverence -- and the bluntness."
No one disputed that the Nazis were the embodiment of evil. But the Vietnam context made it possible to bring up bad things our side had done.
Martians at the Waldorf
He's still bringing them up. He can't seem to stop -- or at least he won't.
Right now, he's sitting on the edge of that sofa, holding that cigarette and talking about his war buddy, Bernie O'Hare -- "In the infantry, you marry one guy and you look out after each other" -- who was with him at Dresden. They sailed home together on a ship that docked at Newport News, Va.
"As we were parting there, I said: 'Okay, what did you learn?' And he said: 'I'll never believe my government again.' He was ashamed that we were just showering explosives on people."
Dresden shows up again in "A Man Without a Country." Why not? It still makes Vonnegut unhappy, 60 years after the fact.
Lots of things have happened to him, of course, in the years since "Slaughterhouse-Five" was published.
He's gotten divorced, remarried and almost divorced again. He's bought his New York townhouse and he's burned part of it down, a few years back, by falling asleep while smoking.
He's taught writing at Harvard, where an old newspaper photograph shows a smiling Prof. Vonnegut diagramming the plot of "Cinderella" on the blackboard. He's seen his money worries vanish.
He's seen "Slaughterhouse-Five" get the Hollywood treatment. He's seen it selected No. 18 on the Modern Library's list of the hundred best English-language novels of the 20th century and "Cat's Cradle" anointed by Yale critic Harold Bloom as part of the "Western canon." And he's written more than a dozen additional books, among them "Breakfast of Champions," "Slapstick," "Galapagos," "Hocus Pocus" and "Timequake," which have been published -- this is putting it gently -- to diminishing critical acclaim.
He's got his theories about this. "A lot of critics are fastidious about me because my provenance is so scruffy," he says. "No, I'm not a Knopf author. No, I wasn't in the New Yorker. And on and on . . ."
Others have theories, too.
He's been repeating himself, some say, and appears not to put much effort into his writing. This isn't true, argues Reed, who notes that Vonnegut "rewrites and rewrites" and suggests that the appearance of "postmodern randomness" in his work conceals a careful deployment of thematic images.
He's got an adolescent streak, say others. Fair enough: Reed says that Vonnegut himself has described his stance toward authority as being like that of a 13-year-old who keeps asking, "Well, why? Well, why? Well, why?"
But never mind. He's done with novels anyway. He had been trying to write one -- about a stand-up comedian at the end of the world -- but all he's got to show for it is a joke or two.
He tells one.
Seems the Martians have landed in Manhattan and checked into the Waldorf. That's the bad news. "The good news is, they only eat homeless people . . . and they pee gasoline." He recites from memory a poem he wrote:
"The Crucified Planet Earth," it begins, "should it find a voice and a sense of irony, / might now well say / of our abuse of it, / 'Forgive them, Father. / They know not what they do.' / The irony would be / that we know what / we are doing . . ."
He talks about what's wrong with Washington. ("We have government run entirely by people who are beholden to rich people or who are themselves rich.") He talks about politicians who are indifferent to the consequences of their acts. ("Bap, bap, we do this, we do that -- and they don't care what happens next.")
"I think human beings are awful animals," he says. "Let's pack it in. Let's stop reproducing. We're wrecking the place."
"There's an optimist lurking inside Kurt Vonnegut," his publisher, Simon, claims -- but it seems a debatable point.
"Please notice when you're happy," Vonnegut has been advising audiences for years. It's a cheery notion that carries an unstated implication: Unhappiness will recapture your attention soon enough.
Today's visit is over. Vonnegut gets up, walks stiffly to the door. Tomorrow, he's leaving town for a two-week vacation.
Last question: Where's he going?
Once more he shifts time into reverse.
"Back when I was 9 years old in Indianapolis," he says.