A Man Without a Country
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Still, you must know what I mean. Everyone has, lurking in their past, a person or two they were once close to and then, poof, no more. Sometimes it’s mutual. Sometimes it’s adversarial. Sometimes it’s an act of self-preservation.
And then, on a sudden, there they are again, utterly familiar yet something’s changed. How could it not? Time has marked you both.
I feel that way about writers. Lord knows I felt writers were my friends long before I ever felt that way about any human being. Yet my shelves are groaning with old friends who, there’s no other way to say it, I gave up on.
Kurt Vonnegut is one of those souls I lost track of although I’m pretty sure I remember him using the Jr. suffix when we first met. The present volume wasn’t published using it but I added it above for old times’ sake. Unlike most such occurrences, in this case I know when and why I gave up on Mr. V.
It was in the late 1980s. Starting in college I’d torn through what I’ve come to think of as the classic Vonnegut: Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Night Mother, Slaughterhouse Five. And on and on. I’d even been assigned Player Piano in a survey lit course.
What made all that tearing possible wasn’t just the scads of time you have on your hands in school. Vonnegut’s style made it easy to finish a book in under a week and keep current with your coursework.
That style, completely apparent in the present volume, can best be described as easy, almost conversational. It’s actually a pretty neat trick because at the same time it’s quite distinctive. Plop yourself in a mess of words unidentified by authorship and if it’s Vonnegut you’ll know right away. That really applies to everything from Night Mother onward. I have a distinct memory of finding Player Piano incredibly wordy and un-Vonnegut like.
The other distinction of Vonnegut was that he was considered a science fiction writer. That cracked me up because it’s a genre I just don’t get let alone read much. And yet there’s plenty of science stuff and it’s only as I type this that I remember the Grateful Dead named their publishing company Ice Nine Publishing after a substance that appears in Cat’s Cradle. Like I said, the books were kind of a requirement.
So why did I stop reading this guy I enjoyed spending so much time with? The best of the books were full of humour and absurdity, a combination I likened to Kafka with belly laughs. Even the fire bombing of Dresden got the humour treatment. Sometime after the mid-1970s, though, the humour started to recede and the books became more topical.
By the time I made it through Galapagos I was done. In my recollection it was devoid of humour and the point of it (environmental Armageddon, more or less) too depressing for me to embrace. I’m the furthest thing from Pollyanna you’ll ever encounter but the island book was too much. Or maybe it was the last human mating with the last dolphin. It was something akin to that which pushed me over the edge.
I’ve only just learned that KV was a depressive. That explains a lot. I did know that he moved to New York at some point (it was actually in the early 1970s) and that that event coincided with his diminution. That led me to develop my hypothesis that if you want to write you must stay away from New York and the literary-industrial complex. But I digress.
Unexpectedly I came across this memoir and there was my friend Kurt again, instantly recognizable and genuinely funny as he told tales of his life. I learned things I did not know. About his life and family in Indiana. About where he lived in New York, About his entrepreneurial endeavors. About the effect of his upbringing on his writing. It was a pleasure to visit with him once again.
Some other familiar names and themes showed up, too. There was Kilgore Trout. And environmental degradation. And a marvelous bit about graphing stories that he used to do on the lecture circuit. By the time this book came out in 2005 or so Vonnegut was long past publishing regularly and so the repurposed material didn’t offend.
Nor did his artwork which he calls confetti but which, were they hanging in City Lights Bookstore, would be called broadsides. I smiled at seeing the poem from Cat’s Cradle that Ambrosia turned into the treacly “Nice, Nice, Very Nice” rendered as a poster.
The ecology stuff that so turned me off is here, too, but in a muted way. Vonnegut says he was deemed a science fiction writer because so many writers know little of science while he was a Cornell-educated chemist who’d worked at GE. So I get that he understands the perils of burning fossil fuels even though I wonder why he can’t understand the social aspects of the whole thing. (I suppose my neighbor with the yard full of weekend motor vehicles would make him twitch.)
I also feel better about the drifting away thing. Kurt admits he gave up on being funny, that he just couldn’t generate the same response to the outrages of existing. I get that even though I miss the fun. But I prefer the younger, less serious Roth so what do I know?
Kurt deserves the last word and so here it is, delivered in art form. I think it’s wisdom to live by: