Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut 1922-2007

I awoke this AM to the news of the death of one of our great writers, thinkers and humanists, Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut, who was 84, had fallen a couple of weeks ago and had suffered some brain damage. It is a wonder he lived as long as he did; years of smoking, depression and a suicide attempt had taken its toll. This traumatic life and tortured mind was the catalyst for some of the most remarkable literature of the last 50 years.

I discovered Vonnegut in high school and have been an avid reader ever since. I do not totally remember my first Vonnegut book, but I think it was "Breakfast of Champions" which remains my favorite to this day. Of course "Slaughterhouse 5", "Cat's Cradle", "God Bless You Mr Rosewater" and all the rest were duly added to my library. This was in the era when his works were categorized as science fiction, due mostly to his penchant for using other planets (who can forget the planet Tralfamadore)and aliens as metaphors and protagonists in his stories. His recurring characters, Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater and Billy Pilgrim, took on lives of their own. Critics initially panned his books and style, but over time realized the brilliance and biting satire of his work.

His novels were structurally unique as well. Many were punctuated with child-like drawings, several early works had numerous short chapters of 1 page or less, some had novels within the novel or had multiple story lines that sometimes overlapped, sometimes not. I particularly enjoyed his technique, testimony to my own hyperactive, disorganized mind. We thought alike. In an era where many writers set their stories in 1940's New York among Italian-Jewish immigrants, Vonnegut frequently wrote about his hometown of Indianapolis, someplace I actually had been to and knew something about. I even have relatives that knew of Vonnegut Hardware, his father's business.

In my humble opinion, after "Breakfast of Champions" in 1973, his work nosedived. "Slapstick", "Jailbird", "Deadeye Dick" and the hideous "Timequake" were shadows of his past work. There were also several attempts to set his books in film, but they defied that treatment and were artistic and commercial disasters. Only in a compilation of short essays "Man Without a Country" published in 2005 did he regain his voice.

Kurt Vonnegut was a revelation to this sheltered, middle class boy from Central Illinois. He taught me to question the institutions and leaders that were dehumanizing us all. He taught me to think, to question and to laugh at the absurdity of things beyond our control. I owe this man from Indy a lot.

So it goes. Or should I say: so it went.

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