As it Turns Out
June 5, 2008 · Updated 3:21 PM
Let me tell you about the man I fell in love with my first year at college. Some would say I was seduced by him, true. Others might say he didnt know I existed, also true. But he had me at my first read of Cats Cradle.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was one of the most uniquely remarkable authors of the 20th century. He died recently at 84, leaving us without another writer of his compassionate genius.
No one can explain Vonnegut to anyone who hasnt read him; nothing can do him justice. But I will say he was an intelligent, delightful, and gentle author. He took me places I had no idea could exist and showed me truths that I possibly never would have learned had it not been for him.
Not that Vonnegut is mainly for the young. Im sure there are plenty of people who think he is entirely unsuitable for readers under the age of disillusionment, wrote Verlyn Klinkenborg of the New York Times. But the time to read Vonnegut is just when you begin to suspect that the world is not what it appears to be. He is the indispensable footnote to everything everyone is trying to teach you, the footnote that pulls the rug out from under the established truths being so firmly avowed in the body of the text.
Vonneguts extraordinary literary style was a combination of philosophy, science fiction and laugh-out-loud humor. His first novel was Player Piano (1952) and his last work was a collection of essays entitled A Man Without a Country (2005). All of his 14 novels are still in print; five have been made into movies.
In 1969, as we were being terrorized by Vietnam, Vonnegut wrote his anti-war semi-autobiography Slaughterhouse-Five. He had, in real life, experienced World War II as a prisoner of war in 1945 in Dresden, Germany. Vonnegut experienced the Allies controversial firebombing of the city. Tens of thousands of German civilians died. Vonnegut survived only because he had been ordered to work in an underground meat locker. The full title is actually Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Childrens Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death making a correlation between the 13th century Childrens Crusade where children were sold as slaves and the youth sent to fight war. In one moving scene, Vonnegut has one of his colonels declare, You know weve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. My God, my God I said to myself, Its the Childrens Crusade.
Billy Pilgrim, the novels hero, becomes unstuck in time bouncing back and forth in a time warp of his life as a soldier, husband, father and caged earthling exhibit on planet Tralfamadore. Vonnegut even has one scene wonderfully playing out in reverse: fireballs folding back into bombs, carried up to planes, taken back to manufacturers, disassembled and components buried back into the ground where no one will ever find them again.
It took Vonnegut a grueling 24 years to be able to write about his Dresden experience. He hated war, including the current Iraq war. A Man Without a Country tells of his contempt for the current administration that brought it about.
Vonnegut gave us the gift of truth and helped us to laugh along the way in order to save us from lunacy. God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.