Friday, September 01, 2006

Vonnegut's Apocalypse

Full-Text (With Apologies to Post Atomic )

Douglas Brinkley. Rolling Stone. New York: Aug 24, 2006., Iss. 1007

He survived being captured by the Nazis and the suicide of his mother to write some of the funniest, darkest novels of our time, but it took George W. Bush to break him

I'M JEREMIAH, AND I'M NOT talking about God being mad at us," novelist Kurt Vonnegut says with a straight face, gazing out the parlor windows of his Manhattan brownstone. "I'm talking about us killing the planet as a life-support system with gasoline. What's going to happen is, very soon, we're going to run out of petroleum, and everything depends on petroleum. And there go the school buses. There go the fire engines. The food trucks will come to a halt. This is the end of the world. We've become far too dependent on hydrocarbons, and it's going to suddenly dry up. You talk about the gluttonous Roaring Twenties. That was nothing. We're crazy, going crazy, about petroleum. It's a drug like crack cocaine. Of course, the lunatic fringe of Christianity is welcoming the end of the world as the rapture. So I'm Jeremiah. It's going to have to stop. I'm sorry."

For the most part, this sort of apocalyptic attitude is to be expected from Vonnegut, who, after all, in his futuristic novel Cat's Cradle (1963) created IceNine, a substance with the capacity to obliterate the Earth incrementally, like the "great door of heaven being closed softly." The naive protagonist of the novel - a character named John/Jonah - actually struggles to write a book titled The Day the World Ended. (Cat's Cradle also includes a hilarious faux religion known as Bokononism, whose religious texts carry the warning "All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.") In the interview collection Conversations With (Curt Vonnegut, he even dismisses the notion that his fourteen novels, six essay collections and dozens of short stories have a long shelf life, saying, "Anybody with any sense knows the whole solar system will go up like a celluloid collar by-and-by." Add to that doomsday scenario Vonnegut's notorious bouts of chronic depression, daily doldrums and suicidal longings, and you get a literary Cassandra of the first order.

Later, remembering his hyperagitation about global warming, I telephoned him at his Long Island summer cottage, curious about whether he saw Al Gore's documen' tary An Inconvenient Truth. "I know what it's all about," he scoffed. "1 don't need any more persuasion." Not satisfied with his answer, I pressed him to expand, wondering if he had any advice for young people who want to join the increasingly vocal environmental movement. "There is noth' ing they can do," he bleakly answered. "It's over, my friend. The game is lost."

IN THE ANNALS OF AMERICAN LITERAture, Vonnegut has been categorized as a black'humorist - a post-Hiroshima novelist who encouraged readers to laugh at the ghastly absurdity of the modern condition. More than any other fiction writer, Vonnegut has been unafraid to peer into the apocalyptic abyss of our lives. This is likely why, after five and a half years of the Bush administration, Vonnegut's signature bleak wit seems more relevant than ever. His most recent book, A Man Without a Country, a collection of essays, was a surprise best seller last year, spending more than eight weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and selling more than 250,000 copies. It would be simple enough to say that Vonnegut is having a major late-career resurgence, except for the fact that he never really went away. Vonnegut is that rare literary figure who never stopped being cool. Ever since he rose to prominence during the igoos, Vonnegut - with his Twainian mop of curly hair, bushy Bavarian beer-hall mustache and carbolic-acid smirk - has been dubbed a prose shaman with a trick bag full of preposterous characters. Harper's deemed him an "unimitative and inimitable social satirist," and The New York Times anointed him the "laughing prophet of doom."

On this day, though, as Vonnegut sips coffee and his tiny white dog, Flour, yaps in the background, there is no wry amusement or social satire in his repertoire. There is only burning dissent about the way modern technology and global capitalism are usurping the last gasps of goodness from honest laborers' lives. And deep sadness that everyday humans are butchering their most civilized impulses. But then Vonnegut starts coughing, clearing his throat of phlegm, grasping for a halfsmoked pack of Pall Malls lying on a coffee table. He quickly lights up. His wheezing ceases. I ask him whether he worries that cigarettes are killing him. "Oh, yes," he answers, in what is clearly a set-piece gag. "I've been smoking Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes since I was twelve or fourteen. So I'm going to sue the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, who manufactured them. And do you know why?"

"Lung cancer?" I offer.

"No. No. Because I'm eighty-three years old. The lying bastards! On the package Brown & Williamson promised to kill me. Instead, their cigarettes didn't work. Now I'm forced to suffer leaders with names like Bush and Dick and, up until recently, 'Colon.'"

AS A SELF-PROCLAIMED AGNOSTIC, Vonnegut is afflicted not with a fear of a vengeful deity but with the "gasoline blues" and "Bushfluenza." He longs for the days of impassioned voices for the downtrodden like FDR or Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther Kingjr. "Our leaders are sick of all the solid information that has been dumped on humanity by honest research and excellent scholarship and investigative reporting," he believes. "They want to put us back on the snake-oil standard."

Although a deeply serious artist, Vonnegut has a well-honed jocular instinct that has not diminished with time. When it comes to reliable comedic genius, you have to reach back to the pages of Ambrose Bierce to find a sustained literary voice so paradoxically imbued with both tragedy (genocide, racism, militarism, loneliness, disease) and comedy (slapstick, gallows one-liners, glib repartee, shtick, vaudeville). And here is the amazing part: Vonnegut somehow brews these different currents not only into the same book or chapter or page but sometimes within the same sentence. He achieves this hocus-pocus by always reversing expectations. His prose style is slap and back off, like ocean water trapped between bulkheads. As a writer, Vonnegut, who uses simple sentences and short paragraphs to hold his readers' attention, is never dull. Repetitive, yes. Too cutesy at times, sure. But he is a page turner, no question about it.

Take, for example, his novel Mother Night (1961), where murderous Nazis engage in pingpong matches and Hitler admires the Gettysburg Address. Nazi thug Adolf Eichmann composes his auto' biography in an Israeli jail cell. At one junc' ture Eichmann asks his fellow prisoner, "Do you think a literary agent is absolutely necessary?" To which the incarcerated man replies, "For book club and movie sales in the United States of America, absolutely." Vonnegut is a master of mak' ing people respond emotionally to something that isn't going on.

If there is such a thing as a Vonnegut trademark, it's his ceaseless insistence that we're all collectively culpable for hideous crimes against our fellow humans. In Deadeye Dick (1982), Vonnegut's concerns are on vivid display. It's the story of a failed artist's twelve-year-old son, Rudy Waltz. The boy accidentally kills a pregnant woman by blasting his father's gun out of a window. In the book, the town in which the action is set, Midland City, Ohio, is virtually destroyed by a neutron bomb. The novel suggests that scientists who place nuclear weapons in the hands of politicians are just as irresponsible as a father who lets a young child have access to a deadly firearm. "I wasn't to touch anything on this planet, man, woman, child, artifact, animal, vegetable or mineral," Rudy believes, "since it was likely to be connected to a push-pull detonator and an explosive charge."

All these tragic-comedic-contrarian moral concerns come together in Vonnegut's 1969 anti-war masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five. The novel is largely autobiographical, complemented with a heavy dose of science fiction. Billy Pilgrim, the principal character of Slaughterhouse, is "unstuck in time" as he journeys across significant moments of his life, including a visit to the planet Tralfamadore and the bombing of Dresden, Germany. "World War II made war reputable because it was a just war," Vonnegut believes. "I wouldn't have missed it for anything. You know how many other just wars there have been? Not many. And the guys I served with became my brothers. If it weren't for World War II, I'd now be the garden editor of The Indianapolis Star. I wouldn't have moved away."

Raised in Indiana during the Great Depression, Vonnegut studied chemistry at Cornell University. While in college, he was an editor of the Cornell Daily Sun, writing occasional columns. Then he enlisted in the U.S. Army, hoping to help destroy the Third Reich. He was trained to operate field artillery - the 240 mm howitzer, a humongous cannon that fired a 3OO-pound shell. Captured by the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge, the twenty-oneyear-old American-infantry private first class became a POW and was sent to Dresden. Suddenly, on February ijth, 1945, the Allies decided to drop new incendiary bombs on the city. Massive fireballs engulfed the largely civilian population, killing approximately 135,000 people. Whole city blocks were reduced to lava-hot rubble in mere minutes. It was a raging inferno like the world had never seen, the worst massacre in European history. Vonnegut, however, along with six other American POWs, survived. Ironically, the Nazis had placed them in a cool underground meatpacking storage cellar known as Slaughterhouse Five. "We didn't get to see the firestorm," Vonnegut later wrote. "We heard the bombs walking around up there. Now and then there would be a gentle shower of calcimine. If we had gone above to take a look, we would have been turned into artifacts characteristic of firestorms; searing pieces of charred firewood two or three feet long - ridiculously small human beings, or jumbo fried grasshoppers, if you will. The stench was like roses and mustard gas."

When Vonnegut emerged from hiding and surveyed the annihilation, he was numb. "Utter destruction," he recalls. "Carnage unfathomable." The Nazis put him to work gathering bodies for mass burial in the skull orchards of Dresden. "As prisoners of war, we dealt hands-on with dead Germans, digging them out of there and taking them to a huge funeral pyre," Vonnegut explains. "But there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in guys with flamethrowers. All these civilians' remains were burned to ashes."

World War II ended and Vonnegut came back to Indiana a Purple Hearted hero. But the ghosts of Dresden haunted him. (He also had the 1944 suicide of his mother to psychologically grapple with.) And he made a pact with the cosmos to never forget Dresden. The grotesque firebombing is a theme in at least seven of his books: Mother Night; God Bless You, Mr. Roseivater; Slaughterhouse-Five; Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons; S!apstick; Palm Sunday; and Bluebeard. Yes, the Nazis were the megavillains, but in the end, Vonnegut's anger and despair were laid on the doorstep of the whole damn human race.

Like most returning veterans, Vonnegut struggled to get his real life back on track. For a while he owned a Saab dealership on Cape Cod. Then he worked as a public-relations executive for the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York, watching newfangled machines manufacture "toys of the future" with monstrous mechanized efficiency. "The word 'automation' hadn't been created yet," Vonnegut recalls. "What I saw occurring at GE was the end of the working individual. Machines were soon to run our lives." That was enough. He turned Luddite and decided to dedicate his life to writing. A letter that he wrote to his father on October 28th, 1949 - now housed in his archive at Indiana University-Bloomington - earmarks the beginning of his abandonment of corporate shilling:

Dear Pop -

I sold my first story to Collier's. Received my check, ($750 minus a 10% agents commission) yesterday noon. It now appears that two more of my works have a good chance of being sold in the near future.

I think, I'm on my way. I've deposited my first check in a savings account and, if I sell more, will continue to do so until I have the equivalent of one year's pay at G.E. Four more stories will do nicety, with cash to spare (something we never had before). I will then quit this goddamn nightmare job, and never take another so long as I live, so help me God. I'm happier than I've been for a good many years.


SINCE DRESDEN TRANSFORMED VONnegut into a card-carrying pacifist, it's not surprising that he disdains everything about the Iraq War. The very notion that more than 2,500 U.S. soldiers have been killed in what he sees as an unnecessary conflict makes him groan. "Honestly, I wish Nixon were president," Vonnegut laments. "Bush is so ignorant. And I don't like idiotic, impulsive people. He's not a capable human being. The war in Iraq shows that he's a phony Christian. Remember what William Shakespeare taught us a long time ago: The devil can cite Scripture for his [own] purpose.'"

He asks me if I know why President Bush is so pissed off at Arabs. I shrug no. "They brought us algebra," he says, laughing. "Also the numbers we use, including the symbol for nothing. Zero." When asked about the current Israel-Hezbollah conflict, he offers only a droll "We all, even our newborn babies, have done something terrible to be inflicted with such lethal nonsense."

These days, Vonnegut claims to be just a "farting-around master" - the occupation that, in fact, people, he believes, were put on Earth to do. Farting around for Vonnegut, however, is a smorgasbord-like affair. He occasionally writes the odd column or essay, many of which eventually became A Man Without a Country. Then there are the mounds of doggerel. Atop Vonnegut's desktop is a cache of unpublished poems, some poking fun at W and the geeky radical right. Take, for example, "Neo-Cons":

I feel as though we have been invaded by body-snatchers or Martians. Sometimes I wish we had been. Isn't it time somebody investigated Yale University?

BESIDES SILLY POEMS, VONNEGUT takes great solace from music. "It makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it," he muses. "Even military bands, although I am a pacifist, always cheer me up. And I really like Strauss and Mozart and all that. You must realize that the priceless gift that African-Americans gave us musically is now almost the only reason many foreigners still tolerate us. That specific remedy for the worldwide epidemic of depression is the blues.

"The function of the artist is to make people like life better than they have before," Vonnegut believes. "When I've been asked if I've ever seen that done, I say, 'Yes, the Beatles did it.' " A few years back, Vonnegut - for a single performance - sang scat at a Phish gig in Northampton, Massachusetts. He also composed a libretto for Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale, which in Vonnegut's hands became a commentary on the infamous termination of Pvt. Eddie Slovik in 1945,tne only U.S. soldier executed for desertion since the Civil War. And Vonnegut has recorded the musical CD Tock Tick, reading lyrics taken directly from Slaughterhouse-Five. He has stalled finishing his highly anticipated novel If God Were Alive Today - or so he claims. "I've given up on it," Vonnegut says, his two slightly bloodshot eyes boring through me with fatigue. "It won't happen." As for his tombstone epitaph, he wants it to read THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED OF THE EXISTENCE OF GOD WAS MUSIC.

What is really occupying Vonnegut's time, however, and has been for the past thirteen years, is his full-bore commitment to painting and drawing. Memorable Vonnegut characters like Kilgore Trout and Billy Pilgrim and the Tralfamadorians are now framable visuals. "Both my father and grandfather were Indiana painters and architects," Vonnegut says. "So you might say being an artist is our family business." Lately, Vonnegut has teamed up with Kentucky artist and printmaker Joe Petro III and formed Origami Express to execute more than 200 silk-screen images. Some are tributes to artists like Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock. Others come from Vonnegut's novels, particularly Cut's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. "I paint or draw pictures, and Joe makes prints of some of them one by one, color by color, by means of the time-consuming, archaic silk-screen process, practiced by almost nobody else," he says. "The process is so painstaking and tactile that each print Joe makes is a painting in its own right."

Ever since 1979, Vonnegut has been married to Jill Krementz, his second wife, a top-notch writer and photojournalist who specializes in author portraits. She works on the bottom floor of their New York home while Vonnegut holes up on the top. The house decor is Hoosier simplicity personified: pale floral sitting chairs, corner piano, idyllic landscape lithographs, throw carpet and antique dolls. Family consumes a great deal of the Vonneguts' time. Between them they have seven children and twelve grandchildren, scattered along the East Coast.

And although Vonnegut hasn't published a major novel since Bluebeard, nearly twenty years ago, a flood of letters arrives daily from his international fans, many searching for advice in the angst-ridden post-9/11 world. A young Seattle fan, for example, wrote Vonnegut about the indignation he experienced at an airport when a quasi strip search occurred. Amused by the letter, Vonnegut wrote back. "The shoe thing at the airports and Code Orange and so on are world-class practical jokes, all right," he concurred. "But my all-time favorite is one the holy anti-war clown Abbie Hoffman pulled off during the Vietnam War. He announced that the new high was banana peels taken rectally. So then FBI scientists stuffed banana peels up their asses to find out if it was true or not."

But Kurt Vonnegut is clearly weary. His road has hit a dead end. He is a man void of silver linings. "Like they say, I'm eighty-three and homeless," he says. "It was the same way when World War II ended. The Army kept me on because 1 could type, so I was typing other people's discharges and stuff. And my feeling was 'Please, I've done everything I was supposed to do. Can I go home now?' That's what I feel right now. I've written books. Lots of them. Please, I've done everything I'm supposed to do. Can I go home now? I've wondered where home is. It's when I was in Indianapolis when I was nine years old. Had a dog, a cat, a brother, a sister."

After a couple of hours of fine conversation, Vonnegut and I head out to a nearby Manhattan eatery. We walk down Third Avenue in suffocating heat; the airpollution level feels lethal, and for a couple of minutes, Vonnegut just keeps coughing. Perspiration beads form on our brows. Vonnegut's good humor dissipates. He is back on his "perils of oil" soapbox, insinuating that the evil slime has gushed into our lives via the River Styx, courtesy of Hades. "Evolution is a mistake," he says in disgust, paraphrasing from A Man Without a Country. "Humans are a mistake. We have destroyed our entire planet over transportation-whoopee. The Bush administration says it's conducting a war against drugs? Then let them bust the oil lobby. Talk about an awful, destructive substance. You pump this gas stuff into your car and you can zoom a hundred miles an hour, kill pets and shatter the atmosphere to smithereens."

And then, after an awkward silence, the Dresden survivor offers a philosophical one-liner. "Life," he says, "is no way to treat an animal." And then, for some reason, we both burst out laughing.

Copyright Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. Aug 24, 2006

How have I managed to keep Kurt Vonnegut off of my radar? And on top of that, to have never read any of his work. I'm such a loser, but cut from the same cloth, apparently. Thanks Cap'n!

*Shakes head and walks away.

But...at least you get the joy of discovery.
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