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Christopher SandfordOctober 13, 2022

The novelist Kurt Vonnegut, whose birth centenary we celebrate in November, was many things during his 84 years on earth: war veteran, trained mechanical engineer, crime reporter, corporate publicist, used car salesman. But perhaps his greatest contribution to humanity, and the quality that runs as the throughline of his public career, was the way he relentlessly mocked the presumptions of the ruling elite.

The absolute refusal to accept handed-down truths—whether in politics, science, religion or art—remains the constant in Vonnegut’s life and work. He was not the sort of man who believed that anyone should impose his or her concept of the guardrails defining the limits of acceptable behavior on anyone else.

Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut's greatest contribution to humanity was the way he relentlessly mocked the presumptions of the ruling elite.

Here is Vonnegut from his debut novel, 1952’s Player Piano:

The sovereignty of the United States resides in the people, not in the machines, and it’s the people’s to take back if they so wish. The machines…have exceeded the personal sovereignty willingly surrendered to them by the American people... for the good government. Machines and organizations and pursuit of efficiency have robbed the American people of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Or from the same book: “Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.... Big, undreamed-of things. The people on the edge see them first.” And, perhaps most apropos, the author himself, speaking in 1986 directly to a U.S. Senate subcommittee debating whether to bar foreign visitors whose views might be uncongenial to the government:

All citizens are entitled to hear and state any idea anyone from anywhere may care to express. And where did I get the notion that there was such an incredible entitlement? I got it from the junior civics course that was given in the seventh grade at Public School 35 in Indianapolis.

Vonnegut had a wry perspective on almost all the human follies he witnessed during his lifetime (1922-2007), and I sometimes wonder what he might have made of the accordion-style cycle of lockdowns and other restraints imposed on us these past few years. Would he have joined the likes of Neil Young and others of the generation of free love and open expression in becoming the sort of shrill, get-with-the-program authoritarian chorus they once warned us about? The answer is: One doubts it, but of course we can never know.

I sometimes wonder what Kurt Vonnegut might have made of the accordion-style cycle of lockdowns and other restraints imposed on us these past few years.

‘Be honorable’

Both in a spirit of tribute to Vonnegut’s centenary and for the sheer pleasure of doing so, I recently reread all 14 of the novels he published in his lifetime. As is well known, his work was quite eclectic. There are authors whose last book is very like their first. Having learned their trade, mastered it for once and all, they practice it with little variation to the very end. Vonnegut was a very different kettle of fish, moving from slightly dotty time-traveling science fiction to pity-of-it-all war horror and back again, all leavened by exasperated satire of the sort of “collective make-believes” that make the world go round, the prime examples being, to Vonnegut’s mind, organized religion and mainstream politics. Even the most defensible of them are what he calls “foma,” the harmless untruths that render life bearable.

You could perhaps make a distinction between Vonnegut’s earlier work, culminating in 1969’s Slaughterhouse-Five (dealing with the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden of February 1945, which Vonnegut, as an American soldier imprisoned by the Germans, was there to witness), relying on ingeniously wrought metaphors and parables as a narrative scaffold, and the last 30 years or so, where he largely abandoned this fictional effort in favor of informal, often acute, occasionally fortune cookie-like, philosophizing on the human condition.

Is there a common theme to the Vonnegut oeuvre? If so, perhaps it is that he was furious with humanity and disgusted by most authority but preferred to vent his spleen in satirical and quite often surrealistic terms, rather than to shout it from the rooftops. He did not see much of a future for the human race, so his advice was palliative rather than prescriptive. “Sing in the shower,” he urged in A Man Without a Country. “Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” Life, to Vonnegut, was a hard thing to get through, but one had to make the effort. Or, more instructively, there was this: “If there’s anything they hate, it’s a wise human. So be one anyway. Save our lives and your own. Be honorable.”

Vonnegut himself described his core mission in life as propagating a “Christ-loving atheism.”

How did Vonnegut choose to broadcast his essential message to humanity? Again, his work shuns the lure of the pigeonhole, though something like “hallucinogenic science fiction, tethered to rage at the corruption of American values” might come close. Vonnegut himself described his core mission in life as propagating a “Christ-loving atheism.” He went about this in his own distinctive way. Take, for instance, Slaughterhouse-Five, which more than 50 years after its publication still remains the best (or certainly best-known) delineation of his basic style, fizzing with ideas to the point of genius or idiocy, which solidified the Vonnegut legend.

It is the sort of thing no self-respecting creative writing instructor would ever condone. The novel violates most of the conventions of the form by telling the reader what will happen to each significant character and situation before he or she comes to read the scene. It’s not exactly Agatha Christie, in other words, nor is it the standard peacenik fulmination of fury at the madness of war. It includes a lot of heavy weather of sadness, but no real thunderstorm of anger at the futility and the waste.

Vonnegut’s book went through an unusually long gestation period—a quarter of a century separated the central event of the Dresden bombing and its literary depiction—and a number of false starts. Having finally settled on the autobiographical form, Vonnegut had the morbid good luck to see his book launched at a time of maximum public disenchantment with the Vietnam War. It resonated immediately.

The novel as a whole is a literary highwire act that involves, among other feats, the use of flashbacks, fast cuts and surrealistic detours behind a Hemingwayesque facade of short, declarative sentences; it also includes a sideshow of time travel and alien abductions, with fourth-wall-breaking cameo appearances by the author himself. At the opening of the book’s last chapter, Vonnegut surfaces to tell the reader that it is now 1968 and Robert Kennedy was shot two nights earlier. “Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes.”

Joseph Heller's humor was of the pie-in-the-face school, Vonnegut’s more arch and detached. If Heller was Jerry Lewis, then Vonnegut was Dean Martin.


Where does Vonnegut rank today in the American literary pantheon? These matters are necessarily subjective, but perhaps his closest peer would be Joseph Heller, and more specifically the energetically sustained gallows humor of Catch-22. Both authors mined a basic lode of anti-war satire, with a rich seam of absurdism, but Heller was the more slapstick in his approach. His humor was of the pie-in-the-face school, Vonnegut’s more arch and detached. If Heller was Jerry Lewis, then Vonnegut was Dean Martin.

Perhaps it is also worth noting that, in keeping with nearly all the best public humorists, Vonnegut led an essentially humor-free life. And perhaps this was, in turn, the wellspring of his art. Certainly his personal circumstances were almost satirically bleak. His once wealthy family was impoverished by the Great Depression, causing strain in his parents’ marriage. His mother committed suicide. His older sister died of cancer a day after her husband was killed in a train wreck. And then of course there was the matter of his war service, and more specifically the Dresden ordeal, which he somehow survived only to be sent into the smoking ruins as prison labor in order to collect and burn the bodies of the victims.

So perhaps it is not surprising that Vonnegut’s often superficially funny prose was shot through with a sense of despair at humanity’s folly, and that this same essential gloom was never far removed from his work. A writer brought up on the spectacle of charred corpses is likely to have a different perspective on life than one weaned on the products of Walt Disney.

A writer brought up on the spectacle of charred corpses is likely to have a different perspective on life than one weaned on the products of Walt Disney.

Vonnegut also felt that, for all the accolades and prizes, the literary establishment never took him as seriously as he thought they should. Perhaps they interpreted his faux-naïf style, love of science fiction and basic decency as being beneath serious study. Gore Vidal once declared Vonnegut to be “exceptionally imaginative,” while Norman Mailer hailed him as “a marvelous writer with a style that remained undeniably and imperturbably his own.” That other daring young man on the 1960s literary trapeze, Tom Wolfe, allowed that Vonnegut “could be extremely funny, but there was a vein of iron always underneath it which made him remarkable.”

Vonnegut self-portrait 1993
"Self-portrait, 1993" (Kurt Vonnegut, National Portrait Gallery)

It is worth remembering, however, that all these words were spoken by way of eulogies, when, with a few notable exceptions, the notoriously venomous literary fraternity treat a fallen colleague with a respect as exaggerated as, a day or two earlier, it would have been astonishing. (Vidal had previously described the author of the “unreadable” Slaughterhouse-Five as “the worst writer in America.”)

Set on the broader canvas of Western literature, we can glimpse in Vonnegut some of Mark Twain’s disenchanted idealism, and of H. L. Mencken’s world-weary irony, while there is surely something to Billy Pilgrim’s progress in Slaughterhouse-Five that recalls one of Samuel Beckett’s surrealistic clowns, shambling through a barren, bombed-out landscape, the human punchline of some cosmic joke of unfathomable cruelty. In terms of Vonnegut’s heirs and successors, there are the likes of John Kennedy Toole and his grand comic fugue A Confederacy ofDunces, the more picaresque end of Hunter S. Thompson’s work and the early novels of PaulAuster, among a host of lesser spawn.

Set on the broader canvas of Western literature, we can glimpse in Vonnegut some of Mark Twain’s disenchanted idealism, and of H. L. Mencken’s world-weary irony.

Deft and wry

So it goes. That was Kurt Vonnegut’s catchphrase, and he happened to use it in our first exchange of correspondence, around 1998, when the great author was in his mid-70s. I had sent him a fan letter, and he wrote back asking me if I might do him a small favor. I was living in Seattle, and Vonnegut wondered if I could supply him with one or two specific details about the local scenery for a story he was writing. “We scribes should stick together,” he added, after apologizing profusely for the imposition. Talk about flattering.

I was at least lucky enough to once see him up close. It was in 2003, and I had read that Vonnegut was appearing at a book event not in my native Seattle but several hundred miles away in Spokane. Vonnegut speaking almost anywhere struck me as well worth the time and effort of travel, and my ancient Toyota and I eventually made it across the Cascade Mountains to the lecture hall.

The author was then in his early 80s. He was a bit slow on his pins and used a walking cane, but still had an impressive cloud of fuzzy gray hair. Pall Mall cigarette in hand (“More tar than the average brand,” Vonnegut later announced proudly), he hobbled over to where I was standing in the middle of a small reception committee, and looked us up and down. “Got any drugs on you?” he asked us. Everyone shuffled around a bit uneasily. Vonnegut remained deadpan. “I’d settle for an aspirin,” he added, which someone produced for him.

After his speech, which was wryly funny and deviated significantly from the Bush administration’s concept of the “war on terror,” Vonnegut circulated around the room, trailing a slipstream of stale smoke and beaming affably to the small groups of fans who approached him. Seeing him slowly make his way from point A to B was a bit like watching the old Queen Mary, with a fleet of tug boats servicing the rumpled, but still in his way majestic, corduroy-jacketed figure in our midst.

I finally got the chance to introduce myself. Vonnegut looked at me blankly for a moment, but then to my surprise suddenly leaned in and embraced me. “These things are my idea of hell,” he muttered in my ear, still managing to smile at his young admirers. Someone interrupted us to ask Vonnegut what advice he would give to an aspiring novelist. “Use a computer,” he said.

After that, we parted with assurances that we should keep in touch. My last memory is of seeing Vonnegut silhouetted in a doorway, a tiny figure with hair piled up as high as a guardsman’s fur cap. About six months later, he sent me a copy of his novel The Sirens of Titan, inscribed “Merry Christmas” over a deft little self-portrait and his signature, but that was as close as we came. Kurt Vonnegut, writer and humanist, died in April 2007, at the age of 84. So it goes.

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