Thursday, April 12, 2007


This is really too much. No sooner do I find out that my favorite spy novelist, Donald Hamilton, has died, and now I learn this morning that my favorite all-time literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut, has died. I’m feeling quite undone.

Along with Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut was the first serious literary type that I truly admired. In junior high and high school, while my English teachers were trying in vain to convince me that people like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ernest Hemingway were literary giants, I was actively seeking out Bradbury and Vonnegut in the local second-hand bookstore, all the while completely baffled that my teachers made no mention of these guys.

Of course, what probably attracted me to them was that they combined observations on the human condition with whimsical fantasy elements. As a teenager, these stories were like comic books with pathos. Vonnegut was especially appealing to me because he also incorporated earthy humor, which is right up any adolescent’s alley.

At that stage of my life, I didn’t have the life experience to fully appreciate the messages that Vonnegut was trying to convey. I was more attracted to the absurdities, which were so abundant in popular entertainment of the era, like Monty Python and Robert Altman’s films. I loved his summaries of the plots in Kilgore Trout’s numerous science fiction novels, the suicidal Martian invasion of Earth in Sirens of Titan, or in Slaughterhouse Five when William W. Campbell, Jr. addresses Billy Pilgrim and the other P.O.W.s dressed in a star-spangled outfit reminiscent of Captain America.

I related to these books like the comic books I was reading at the time because, not only were they wildly imaginative, they had a cast of characters which would cross-over from book to book. Just as Spiderman might encounter the Hulk, Eliot Rosewater would worship the works of Kilgore Trout, and Kilgore Trout would meet up with Billy Pilgrim. It was the Vonnegut Universe, and it was far more interesting than anything Stan Lee could ever come up with.

Although I was able to gain more from his books later in life than I could as a teenager, I do remember being profoundly changed by them in terms of how I viewed writing. When I read Cat's Cradle (still my favorite), I was completely blown away with his apocalyptic ending, not so much because the world as we know it ended, but that it occurred so matter-of-factly. I realized that the writer had an obligation to provide different points of view rather than just following the boilerplate laid out by others.

I was also greatly moved by Slaughterhouse Five. As the son of an alcoholic who regularly attended A.A. meetings, I was quite familiar with the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” However, to me it was just something you recited. The words had no meaning to me. Toward the end of Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut mentions that the Serenity Prayer is on a locket around Montana Wildhack’s neck. After reading to that point and vicariously experiencing the life of Billy Pilgrim, I suddenly got what that prayer actually meant. As a teenager with a drunken father and a shattering family, there was a great deal I couldn’t change. But with my whole life ahead of me, there were still opportunities to make tremendous changes. When I reached the end of Slaughterhouse Five, I felt like I finally had the wisdom to know the difference.

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.

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