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Apr 20,2007
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut: So it goes
by Arthur Salm

Listen: Kurt Vonnegut has come unstuck in time.

The American novelist, short-story writer, essayist and would-be curmudgeon died recently at 84 - the age at which he dispatched his fictional alter ego, Kilgore Trout - several weeks after suffering head trauma from a fall.

 
Kurt Vonnegut 
Fans will recognize the first line, above, as a variation on a line from "Slaughterhouse-Five," Vonnegut's masterpiece. His protagonist, Billy Pilgrim - "unstuck in time" - ricochets from childhood to old age and back again, from his experiences as a POW in the World War II to a humdrum life as an optometrist to animals-in-a-zoo-like captivity on the planet Tralfamador with the adult film star Montana Wildhack.

The semi-autobiographical novel opens with "All this happened, more or less," and it did - the part about being a prisoner of war, at least. Vonnegut survived the firebombing of Dresden, and the unspeakable carnage he witnessed in its aftermath imbued him with a horror of war in all its forms and heartfelt contempt for those who wage it.

It's comforting to imagine the rumpled, latter-day Mark Twain (to whom he has been compared, to neither's detriment) zipping forever, Billy Pilgrim-like, among various stations of his eventful and productive life.

Right now - whatever, in Vonnegut's way of thinking, that means - he could be a young man toiling away as an advertising copywriter; taking in three of his sister's children after her and her husband's tragic deaths; typing a second draft of his breakthrough novel "Cat's Cradle"; absent-mindedly leaving one of his still-smoldering unfiltered Pall Malls in an ashtray, burning down half his East Side Manhattan brownstone, consuming most of his archives (he almost died from smoke inhalation); or - fingers crossed! - frolicking with an adult film star in a pressurized dome, if not on Tralfamador, then maybe on the asteroid 25399 Vonnegut, named in his honor.

Or appearing on "The Daily Show" in September 2005. Speaking on humans' place in the evolutionary scheme of things, he told (is telling?) host Jon Stewart, "Our planet's immune system is trying to get rid of us, and it should."

But it was always clear, from the gentle nature of his fiction to the warmth that radiated from the cracks and creases in his crusty person and persona, that Vonnegut could never qualify as a misanthrope. His life was not without its tragedies - in addition to the untimely death of his sister, his mother committed suicide - but the bitterness of his later years, unlike Twain's, was not all-consuming.

Though a pessimist to his core, he must have harbored some hope for humanity, as he served for a time as the president of the American Humanist Association. Humanism, he once explained, "is trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead."

And behave decently, and honorably, he did, despite his self-effacement about things such as his Purple Heart ("a ludicrously negligible wound") and his AHA presidency ("that totally functionless capacity"). And write well - make that, brilliantly - he did, too, from the early, straight science fiction of the 1950s ("Player Piano," "The Sirens of Titan") to the high-watermark novels of the '60s like "Cat's Cradle," "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" and "Slaughterhouse-Five," to his lesser (by comparison, remember) fiction beginning with 1973's "Breakfast of Champions."

All this happened.

Or maybe, is happening.

Copley News Service

661 times read

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