E-mail this to a friend »
By 1962, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., had been writing novels for ten years; three had been published -- "Player Piano," "The Sirens of Titan" and "Mother Night" -- and nobody had ever heard of him. He didn't count. "Player Piano" had been haphazardly reviewed when it was published in 1952, because it was a first novel; and had been as haphazardly dismissed when the reviewers found out that it looked a lot like science fiction -- which is to say, trash. In 1959, "The Sirens of Titan" came out as a paperback original, with a screaming space-opera cover -- and didn't get a single review. Ditto "Mother Night," in 1962, which carried a cover blurb implying that it was part of the "Kiss My Whip" school of writing.
In the 11 years since, he's written four more novels -- "Cat's Cradle," "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," "Slaughterhouse-Five" and "Breakfast of Champions," just published. His books are now reviewed in the lead slot of the Sunday Times book section; "Slaughterhouse-Five" rode the best-seller lists for more than three months and was nominated for a National Book Award; "Breakfast of Champions" was grabbed by three book clubs long before it came out; those early novels that the critics wouldn't touch with a stick are now being taught in colleges all over the place; a book of original essays about him called "The Vonnegut Statement" just appeared; the number of Ph.D. dissertations considering his work is up to six so far, and you can practically hear the typewriters clacking in graduate schools everywhere: "The Ambivalent Relationship of Zen and Bokononism in 'Cats' Cradle': An Approach." And so on.
Vonnegut counts now. But it's been a long time coming, and the way it happened was a series of accidents. The first accident was his birth date: Armistice Day, a day set aside for the celebration of peace. He was born in Indianapolis in 1922, into a German family with a long rationalist tradition; they were pacifists and atheists who loved America. His grandfather had been the first licensed architect to practice in Indiana and his father was an architect, too -- which probably has something to do with how much Vonnegut has thought about the importance of homes. He had a sister, who died of cancer 15 years ago, and has an older brother, a well-respected scientist who is listed directly above his kid brother in "Who's Who."
Vonnegut planned to be a scientist, too, but started writing in high school for the Shortridge Echo, one of the country's few daily high school papers. He went on to Cornell to study biochemistry -- and ended up writing a column for The Cornell Daily Sun. This was the spring of 1941 and most of his fellow freshmen were hungry to get into the war and kill Germans. Vonnegut, who was both a pacifist and a German-American, wrote anti-war columns that made almost everybody nervous.
But Pearl Harbor and the dreary drift of the war changed his mind enough that he enlisted in a student officer-training corps in 1943, and he was sent to Carnegie Tech to become a mechanical engineer. But that didn't work, and not long afterward he was in the Infantry, in Germany, fighting Germans. It was the Battle of the Bulge. When the Germans blasted his squad to pieces -- leaving Vonnegut to stumble and wander for 11 days, alone, lost, looking for the war -- Billy Pilgrim, the gentle, time-warped optometrist who lives through it all in "Slaughterhouse-Five," was born.
If war had before seemed preposterous to Vonnegut, it just got worse: He was captured and eventually shipped off to Dresden, which he has since described as the first truly beautiful city he had ever seen. It was supposedly a safe place; there was nothing in it to bomb but people and extraordinary cathedrals. He was down in a slaughterhouse when it happened; when he came out, the city had melted to the ground. And the good guys had done it -- and then kept quiet about it. He started thinking about that.
After the war, Vonnegut bounced through several schools and finally landed at the University of Chicago, studying anthropology. He didn't get his degree -- the faculty committee turned down his thesis, "Fluctuations Between Good and Evil in Simple Tales" -- but he learned some things at school about watching how people behave that still show, sometimes hilariously, in his writing. In a lot of ways, he's still an anthropologist, whether the University of Chicago says so or not.
He married Jane Cox, whom he'd met in kindergarten, when he went to Chicago, and was moonlighting as a reporter for the City News Bureau to keep them both alive. But after the faculty committee said his ideas weren't right, he left school and wound up as a public-relations man for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He was a good one, for three years, from 1947 to 1950, but it meant hanging around scientists all the time, listening to their bright plans for improving the future. He left in 1950 because his reaction to their cheery talk was turning into a book: "Player Piano." It seemed to him that scientists in those days wanted to mechanize everything and take care of everybody, and he showed them a terrible, funny future in which just that had happened: a technological "Brave New World" where virtually all work was done by machines and everybody but the scientists who ran them walked around feeling empty and useless.
By the time "Player Piano" came out, Vonnegut had moved to Cape Cod and taken up free-lancing full time. For the next few years, he lived mainly by writing short stories for such magazines as Collier's, Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan. His family was getting bigger -- he had three children and became legal guardian of his sister's three children when she and her husband died within a day of each other -- so he spent most of his time writing stories that would feed everybody, and didn't get around to another novel until "The Sirens of Titan." Vonnegut claims it's the only book he enjoyed writing, and it is a fantastic whoop, with characters pinballed to Mercury, Mars and Titan, an "extremely pleasant moon of Saturn." In it, the entire course of human history has had a single purpose: to deliver a replacement part to an alien spaceship on Titan. But at least it's a purpose.
Like the rest of his early books, "Mother Night" lived only in hiding on the paperback racks. The next one, "Cat's Cradle," in 1963, began with a typical lack of fanfare. But it leaked onto college campuses -- where the hot discussion at the time was what Piggy symbolized in "Lord of the Flies" -- and spread like a bizarre and happy rumor: a romp about the end of the world, with a new religion created by a bum and based on agreeable lies, and full of useful new terms like karass and grandfalloon. Two years later, the rumor had spread so well that Vonnegut had become a campus cult hero; both the term and the status still make him a little jumpy.
After 1965, when "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" came out, grownups began paying attention, too. One by one, the critics heard the kids and found a new novelist to play with; and while they were figuring out how to react to him Vonnegut accepted an invitation to teach at Iowa's Writers' Workshop. Then came a Guggenheim, which he used to return to Dresden and to work on what became "Slaughterhouse-Five."
His family is grown and scattered now, and Vonnegut has given up the Cape Cod farmhouse for a New York duplex in the East 50s. He says that "Breakfast of Champions," which was published in May, will be "the last of the selfish books." It's supposedly about a confused and then crazed Midwesterner who believes he's the only human being in a world of robots, but it's really about looking for, and finding, reasons to stay alive on a planet that's certainly crazy and frequently shitty, too -- which, finally, is what all his books have been about.
Vonnegut is 50 now, and for a lot of people that's a year full of changes, checking out old paths and directions, snooping around for new ones. To find out if that's been the case for him, and to see how the world looks from where he's watching, we sent Staff Writer David Standish to talk to him in New York. Standish reports:
"I was one of the people who made Kurt Vonnegut rich and famous. It was in 1962, and I was a junior at a university in Ohio, on my way back from a wonderful wrecked weekend in Chicago. It was just about dawn, and I was waiting for the Indianapolis bus in the Greyhound station, tired and happy and hung over and in no mood for sleep. Joe, as we used to say, College.
"So I was cruising to kill time, and wound up staring through the haze at the paperback rack, blinking my eyes into focus, and saw: MOTHER NIGHT By Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The Confessions of Howard W. Campbell, Jr.
"It sounded weird enough. And it was. I spent the next three hours riding toward Vonnegut's home town, getting to know his remarkable zoo of odd, quirky characters -- senile, unreconstructed Nazis, artistic failed spies and fanatic evangelists who hate for God. The book was funny and serious and sometimes incredibly smart; in it somewhere he develops the image of the crazed totalitarian mind as a gear with a few teeth missing: It ticks along perfectly most of the time, then skips, jumps and lurches -- and ticks along perfectly again. I was knocked out. And went back to Ohio and spread the word: 'I don't know who this fucker Vonnegut is, but he's a gas. Pass it on.'
"Eleven years later, I was ringing the bell of his apartment. At first I thought I had the wrong building, it was so plain and unassuming on the outside; but that, of course, was right: Vonnegut himself is a little like that. He let me in, smiling, and led me through a tiny kitchen into a high-ceilinged living room. The walls were covered with paintings, one or two huge and dreamily abstract, and one full of happy people done in fourth-grade primitive style that he said came from Haiti. The black Danish-modern chair he sits in to write was pulled up to a low coffee table, facing his portable typewriter. Envelopes and papers and letters were piled in nearly neat stacks on several tables. The rear wall was glass and faced an enclosed patio that was being used at the moment to store a rug rolled up and flopped there. It looked like he'd moved in a few months before and was just finishing up. I asked him how long he'd lived there. He grinned. 'Two years.'
"We started the interview right away. He chain-smoked Pall Malls and laughed and wheezed and pondered, running his hands through his WASPro and sometimes looking at the ceiling to find words. In his V-neck sweater, slacks and old sneakers, he didn't look much like a proper hero for hip college students -- more like their father. And he looked like he'd be a good one. I had always loved his books, because they always made me laugh and often made me think, but as we talked, I realized that in a strange way -- beyond the characters and planets that turn up again and again, like an askew intergalactic Yoknapatawpha County -- all his books really fit together. That there is a Plan. I began by asking him what he's trying to say in his books."
E-mail this to a friend »