Thursday, April 12, 2007
So It Goes
I'll never get the chance to tell Kurt Vonnegut how much I loved his work.
He died Wednesday from injuries he suffered in a fall at his home in Manhattan.
His death was similar to my father's back in January--he fell, hit his head, and a short time later he died.
And like my father, Kurt Vonnegut was a veteran of World War II. The similarity pretty much ends there, but it's tough to see another member of that generation fade away.
There was a time in my life when it seemed I was reading nothing but Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five, The Sirens of Titan, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, I read them all and wanted more.
He had a book of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House, that really showed how he evolved as a writer. It's been a long time, but I remember reading a few stories that I would be tempted to call clunkers.
One was about American POW's in the Korean War who are forced to play in a human chess match where they are the pieces.
Each time they lose a man, the poor guy gets killed. It had a trashy, pulp fiction (pre-Tarantino) feel it to and you would never guess that the same writer would go on to create the likes of Billy Pilgrim.
But then there was another story, "Deer in the Works," which, as I recall, was about a man who works at this huge industrial plant--Vonnegut worked at a GE plant in Upstate New York--and at one point he's watching as a deer runs frantically through this vast, unfriendly place.
The story was very simple and the image of that terrified deer was unforgettable.
Whenever I read a Vonnegut book, I felt like a member of some elite club. I thought all these dummies around me didn't have the brains to get what Kurt was trying to say.
The Children's Crusade
There was a character in Slaughterhouse Five called Paul Lazzaro who had this threat that he made constantly. I don't remember it exactly, but it went something like this:
"One day there's going to be a knock on your door. A guy is going to shoot your pecker off. He's going to let you live for a few minutes to see what it's like to go through life without a pecker and then he's going to shoot you in the head."
Whenever I was joking with my friends and one of us got ticked off, he'd point to the other and begin, "one day, there's going to be a knock on your door..."
George Roy Hill made a fine film version of the novel, which was no easy trick, given how the story shifted from World War II Germany to the future to outer space. Billy Pilgrim, after all, had become unstuck in time.
Nick Nolte also appeared in a film version of Mother Night, which I remember as being pretty good, but I'd like to see it again. I recall watching it and thinking how it took nerve to make a picture like this, when most movies just blow stuff up.
Vonnegut slowed down and I gradually moved on to other writers. I wonder how he'd write up the current freak show that our society has become. The disaster in Iraq, the neocon assault on our country--this is great material for a man like Vonnegut.
Like a lot things from years ago, I don't remember his work so much as I remember my obsession for his work. He was just so big in my life at one time. Maybe I should dig up some of his old paperbacks I have around here and read them again.
I think of how Billy Pilgrim would move through time and then look at how I carry the past around with me. I still get angry over things that happened years ago, still regret the things I did and the things I didn't do. In a sense I'm unstuck in time, too.
I have to confess that one of the first things I felt reading his obituary--after sadness, of course--was a strange kind of liberation.
I sometimes feel guilty about my father's death, as it happened when I was in the house. It was 3 AM and I was sound asleep, but I felt badly for a long time. It happened on my watch, I would tell people.
Those feelings slowly faded, but apparently they were still inside my skull someplace, floating around, waiting to come out. I don't know what to make of all that, but I bet Kurt Vonnegut would.