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Thursday, April 12, 2007

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

When I think about my own death, I don’t console myself with the idea that my descendents and my books and all that will live on. Anybody with any sense knows that the whole solar system will go up like a celluloid collar by-and-by. I honestly believe, though, that we are wrong to think that moments go away, never to be seen again. This moment and every moment lasts forever.
-Kurt Vonnegut

I heard about the death of my hero, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 84, around 7 a.m. It felt like a sharp jab to the stomach. I continued with my morning routine, showered, got ready and left for work.

In New York City today it was pouring, not your average drizzle that dusts right off your clothes with a flick of a wrist, but a towering downpour, equipped with gusts of ripping wind that actually bended my umbrella in half.

I proceeded onto the dreary den of my Brooklyn subway stop, and found myself bombarded by a mass of downtrodden subway riders, a very familiar New York City scene. I looked around and examined the faces of the commuters, the stoic, empty glares, each crammed into the maze and often hysteria of New York City life. I felt like a tiny spoke in a much broader, meaner economic and social wheel, a wheel perpetually in a vicious motion, stopping for no one along the way.

I got as far as the Whitehall stop in Manhattan and turned around. Not today, not on the day my hero died.

With the passing of Kurt Vonnegut, I’m left feeling like an aspiring auto mechanic without an instruction manual. The author penned 23 total works, including 15 novels, which is of course, more than anyone could possibly ask for from their favorite author. But what about tomorrow? I worry about my kids, and their children’s kids, who will supply them with a voice of decency and reason, of peace and justice?

To read Vonnegut is to be catapulted into a stratosphere of the impossible, where fact and fiction overlap into a hybrid of black humor and serious social criticism, solidifying his status as a rhetorical prankster. After finishing a Vonnegut book, you feel like you’ve just been given a giant, warm handshake equipped with a sting from an electric hand buzzer.

Vonnegut’s best work, Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, Hocus Pocus, A Man Without A Country, and what many consider to be his finest novel, the anti-war classic, Slaughterhouse-Five, run the reader through a gamut of emotions. No other author has made me see the beauty, sorrow, joy, and pain of the world like Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t own Vonnegut novels I collect them, like a child acquires memory and experience.

Underneath the roar of Vonnegut’s prose is an innocuous plea for decency, for humanity to live up to its highest ideals. Vonnegut loved to quote Mark Twain, Jesus, and former American Socialist Party leader, Eugene V. Debs. But it was an existential quote from his son Mark Vonnegut, that Kurt seemed most found of, “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

Above all, Vonnegut railed against the ruthlessness of American political and social culture, what he saw as a society in which bullies are not only rewarded but celebrated. His targets included humans as the ultimate butchers of the environment, menacing corporations, social Darwinism and the Bush administration. Vonnegut wrote in a column for the progressive publication, In These Times:

“But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.”

Vonnegut warned of technological and economic progress as a hindrance to the spiritual growth of human communities. In Player Piano, the author wrote of a time where humans are replaced by machines in the name of economic achievement, and as a result society ends in chaos.

Kurt Vonnegut often tinkered with the idea of suicide. His mother committed suicide when he was growing up, but he ultimately decided it was important for him to set a good example for his children. That’s not to say he wasn’t quite found at the possibility of death as he stated in A Man Without A Country, “The last thing I ever wanted was to be alive when the three most powerful people on the whole planet would be named Bush, Dick and Colon.”

I’m reminded now of Vonnegut’s continued popularity with young people. His words have historically and to this day, particularly resonated with those of the younger generation. For Vonnegut’s message is consistently aligned with the blanket idealism that only the young seem to posses. In one of his many commencement addresses, Vonnegut remarked to the 1970 graduating class of Bennington College:

“So let’s divide up the wealth more fairly that we have divided it up so far. Let’s make sure that everybody has enough to eat, and a decent place to live and medical help when he needs it. Let’s stop spending money on weapons, which don’t work anyway, thank God, and spend money on each other.”

I had a chance to meet my hero, last October. His wife, noted photographer Jill Krementz, was hosting a book signing at Barnes and Noble in New York City. Not wanting to deter from his wife, Vonnegut gave a few opening remarks but sat out the rest of the event.

He did however offer to sign books, and I choked back reverence and approached the author. When my time came to meet him, Vonnegut, dressed in a trademark tweed suit with frumpy tattered hair scattered in every direction, looked up at me with the droopy faded eyes of a halfway resting sheep dog. The only words I could muster were, “Hey Kurt, I’m Brendan, it’s awesome to meet you.”

Vonnegut penned his name on the picture of him in his wife’s book, along with his signature * in between the Kurt and Vonnegut. I accepted my book back from him, and looked down at his writing. He never said anything to me, he didn’t have to. I know that moment will last forever.


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