Thursday, April 12, 2007

So It Goes

I was saddened to hear that renowned satirical author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. died yesterday in New York at age 84, of brain injuries suffered as a result of a fall several weeks ago. The Indianapolis, Indiana-born writer was just 29 years old when his first novel, Player Piano, was published in 1952. He went on to pen 13 others, including the semiautobiographical Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Breakfast of Champions (1973, in which the author himself appeared), Jailbird (1979, the first of his novels I read and enjoyed), and his final work of fiction, Timequake (1997).

The New York Times’ Dinitia Smith eulogizes today that
Vonnegut wrote plays, essays and short fiction. But it was his novels that became classics of the American counterculture, making him a literary idol, particularly to students in the 1960s and ’70s. Dog-eared paperback copies of his books could be found in the back pockets of blue jeans and in dorm rooms on campuses throughout the United States.

Mark Twain, Vonnegut used humor to tackle the basic questions of human existence: Why are we in this world? Is there a presiding figure to make sense of all this, a god who in the end, despite making people suffer, wishes them well?

He also shared with Twain a profound pessimism. “Mark Twain,” Vonnegut wrote in his 1991 book, “Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage,” “finally stopped laughing at his own agony and that of those around him. He denounced life on this planet as a crock. He died.”
Politics had always been a significant interest of Vonnegut’s, and had informed much of his fiction. But in recent years, he turned increasingly to remarking on the often disastrous situation in which the United States and the world find themselves. He was especially critical of George W. Bush’s White House, opining in the politically progressive magazine In These Times that “our leaders are punch-drunk chimpanzees,” and remarking, in a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone, “Honestly, I wish Nixon were president. Bush is so ignorant.” Considering Vonnegut’s contempt for the Watergate scandal’s chief architect and most tragic figure (he once described Republican Richard M. Nixon as the “first president to hate American people and all they stand for”), such criticism is biting, indeed.

Much of this man’s philosophy about politics and life can be better understood by reading his most recent book, A Man Without a Country (2005), portions of which were originally published in In These Times. An index to Vonnegut’s stories in that magazine can also be found here.

Although Vonnegut could sound cynical at times, his work promoted the public’s enjoyment of fiction, and often of life in general. He spoke his truths without fear or hesitation. And for all of those reasons, we all owe him a giant debt of gratitude.

Kilgore Trout weeps.

* * *

The media are (justifiably) filled today with Kurt Vonnegut encomia, including the Los Angeles Times, Salon, Time, and what was once his hometown newspaper, The Indianapolis Star. If you’re still craving more, Salon offers up a five-minute audio clip of Vonnegut reading from Slaughterhouse-Five. Click here to listen. And Rolling Stone has archived a 1998 essay by Vonnegut in which he “ruminates on the American Dream and the fate of the planet in the dawn of the twenty-first century.” You can read that here. Finally, the author’s Web site today features what may be the most heartfelt good-bye of all, in the form of a simple illustration, presumably by Vonnegut himself. See it while you can.

READ MORE:High School Vonnegut,” by Liesl Schillinger (Slate); “The Night I Shared a Beer with Vonnegut,” by Stephen Miller (January Magazine); “Kurt Vonnegut: A Blogger Tribute” (Bloggasm).

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