God Bless You, Mr. Funnyguts

From the wires, a sad but not unexpected item about one of my favorite all-time writers:

American literary idol Kurt Vonnegut, best known for such classic novels as “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Cat’s Cradle,” died on Tuesday night in Manhattan at age 84, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.


Longtime family friend, Morgan Entrekin, who reported Vonnegut’s death, said the writer had suffered brain injuries as a result of a fall several weeks ago, the newspaper reported.

Vonnegut, born in Indianapolis in 1922, also wrote plays, essays and short fiction. But his novels — 14 in all — became classics of the American counterculture. He was a literary idol, particularly to students in the 1960s and 1970s, the Times said.

The defining moment of Vonnegut’s life was the firebombing of Dresden, Germany by Allied Forces in 1945, an event he witnessed as a young prisoner of war, the newspaper said.

Dresden was the basis for “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which was published in 1969 against the backdrop of war in Vietnam, racial unrest and cultural and social upheaval, the Times said.

Vonnegut became a cult hero when the novel reached No. 1 on best-seller lists, the article said, adding that some schools and libraries have banned the book because of its sexual content, rough language and depictions of violence.

The novel featured a signature Vonnegut phrase, “so it goes,” which became a catch phrase for opponents of the Vietnam war.

After the book was published, Vonnegut went into severe depression and vowed never to write another novel. In 1984, he tried to take his life with sleeping pills and alcohol, the report said.

The report fails to note how lucky we have been that his suicide attempt failed. Out of it grew Deadeye Dick, one of his most poignant later works. A great deal of wry, informal and absolutely wonderful philosophizing (in his nonfiction collections Palm Sunday and Fates Worse Than Death) also ensued. So did several other novels, all of which proved Vonnegut’s powers as a writer to be undiminished, whatever his mental state at the time.

And I think Vonnegut himself was glad that the attempt failed, because it enabled him to meet Lee Stringer, a formerly homeless man whose Grand Central Winter propelled him to fame in the late 1990s. A conversation about writing and life in general they had (in discussion before an appreciative audience) became a slim but to me very important book, Like Shaking Hands With God. Both writers, by their own admission, have no grand answers for us, but along the way they managed to impart a more honest, penetrating, at times very funny way of asking the questions.

Slaughterhouse-Five is, of course, his most famous book, and deservedly so; it took him so long to write and so many false starts, and the end result is unforgettable. One of the finest, truest, most imaginative and most hallucinatory books I’ve ever read. Here’s one of my favorite passages from it:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”

“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?'”

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.

And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Of course, Harrison Starr, that giggle-giggle witty proponent of glaciers, nowadays might as well be known as “Harrison Who?” I know of no accomplishment of his, other than this incidental appearance in one of my favorite books, not as a filmmaker, but cast in the role of a foil.

Vonnegut, on the other hand, is very well known indeed–for writing anti-glacier books in which the word motherfucker appears in a raw wartime context, uncensored, unbleeped, unvarnished and unasterisked. For this and, I suspect, for its anti-glacier leanings, Slaughterhouse-Five regularly finds itself on lists of banned books all over the United States, that sweet land of liberty, where you can say anything, including “FIRE!” in a crowded theatre. Especially since the Fairness Doctrine was abolished, anti-glacier speech has enjoyed unprecedented popularity. Just ask all those free-speech-loving right-wing water carriers.

God bless the anti-glacier book, for without it, I might never have learned why those who fought World War II are generally the slowest to praise its noble purpose. They don’t expect great rewards for this. They humbly ask that we simply not forget what they did. To what end?

Why, to stop the next glacier, naturally.

And here is another of my favorite passages, in which Vonnegut describes, in great detail, how to stop a glacier:

I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.

I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.

As you can see, stopping a glacier is a monumentally difficult task. There are certainly a great many companies who make massacre machinery, and a lot of flunkies in and out of the media who think we need it. Happily, all Kurt Vonnegut’s sons are now long past the age in which they could take part in massacres. I suspect they’re probably also old enough to retire, or soon will be, and so need never take a job in a massacre-machine factory.

Lucky ducks.

We poor sods, however, must make do with writing anti-glacier screeds (like this one!) on the Internets, and pray someone, anyone, reads and heeds.

Here’s another passage I like:

And on the third day of wandering, somebody shot at the four from far away–shot four times as they crossed a narrow brick road. One shot was for the scouts. The next one was for the antitank gunner, whose name was Roland Weary.

The third bullet was for the filthy flamingo, who stopped dead center in the road when the lethal bee buzzed past his ear. Billy stood there politely, giving the marksman another chance. It was his addled understanding of the rules of warfare that the marksman should be given a second chance. The next shot missed Billy’s kneecaps by inches, going end-on-end, from the sound of it.

Roland Weary and the scouts were safe in a ditch, and Weary growled at Billy, “Get out of the road, you dumb motherfucker.” The last word was still a novelty in the speech of white people in 1944. It was fresh and astonishing to Billy, who had never fucked anybody–and it did its job. It woke him up and got him off the road.

This is why that book keeps landing on the ban-lists, thus earning Vonnegut more readers later on than the people who banned it could dare dream of. That passage, in which a word seldom used by white people in 1944 makes its debut in an American novel, is fresh and astonishing (maybe a little too fresh and astonishing for some), and it does its job. It wakes you up and gets you off the road.

So, I think, does this one:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bo
mbers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

Since we cannot actually reverse these man-made glaciers, like the backwards film Billy Pilgrim sees, we have to do the next best thing: not build them.

Meanwhile, on Tralfamadore, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five is looking down, perhaps thinking that he is not in good condition at this moment, but that he is fine in other moments, as the Tralfamadorians are wont to do.

So it goes.

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