Thursday, April 12, 2007


I could not have made it through the Vietnam War without Kurt Vonnegut. His clever, irreverent novels about this subspecies MAN gave me a lot of laughs, especially during the two Nixon administrations and that period that Vonnegut called the "count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam."

Kurt Vonnegut is dead at age 84. It's a plime-blank miracle he lasted that long. He tried to off himself back in 1984 with sleeping pills and alcohol, but the joke was on him. He woke up, sober, and you can just imagine his shrugging and sitting back down at his typewriter. He went on to write several more best-sellers.

The books I most remember from the 1960s -- "Player Piano," "Mother Night," "Cat's Cradle" -- were funny but biting, shot through with the sort of acid that burned in the bloodstream of another of my writing heroes, Mark Twain. According to this obituary, Vonnegut shared with Mark Twain "a profound pessimism." "Mark Twain," Vonnegut once said, "finally stopped laughing at his own agony and that of those around him. He denounced life on this planet as a crock. He died."

Vonnegut wrapped up that fatalistic view in a catch phrase -- "So it goes" -- which became a motif in his most popular novel, "Slaughterhouse-Five." I gave my copy away years ago, so must fall back on the obit linked above for this characteristic passage written in 1968:

Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round, was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes.

Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes.
That's bleak, and it's hard to explain now how Vonnegut's laughter at the condition of man gave us such a hopeful crutch through the Vietnam War. Maybe it was just hearing the laughter of a complete nihilist, feeling the actual human warmth behind that laughter, despite the nihilism, that nurtured our young, draft-dodging hearts.

In one of his novels Vonnegut created the fictional Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, and he always seemed to side with that God, who found human life so disastrously knuckle-headed. But try as he might, Vonnegut was just the opposite of utterly indifferent. It actually takes great love to give us what he gave us, a mirror in which to see ourselves and to laugh at what we see.

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