Thursday, April 12, 2007

And so it goes

Kurt Vonnegut was one of my favorite writers. I don't remember where I stumbled upon him, or if it was a recommendation, or did I watch a nutty movie based on his book or come across the fact that he was best friends with fellow cynical writer Joseph Heller (whom I also love), but I'm glad I did. I've read all fourteen of his books. I think I loved something about them all. From Kilgore Trout to Ice 9. I enjoyed them, even when I wasn't sure I understood them.

I saw one of his last national public appearances on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart promoting his last semi autobiographical book. He was as angry, witty, and charming as a guy could be. I wish I'd met him in real life. He inspired me from afar. I'm not sure I could stand it if I'd actually met him.

The defining moment for him was during World War II. He'd gotten captured near the end, and had been made to produce vitamin supplements in a former basement slaughterhouse in Dresden an architecturally beautiful and famous city. The task saved his life. Dresden was carpet bombed by the RAF and US Army Air Corp. Environmental conditions led to a phenomenon called a fire storm. Heat and conditions wiped the area free of life like an atomic bomb. In his book Slaughterhouse Five he likened it to walking on the moon afterward. The book's name came from the five US army survivors that lived because they were in a slaughterhouse underground.

The men were made to scour the town for bodies afterward. There were very few survivors.

He wrote how they used a horse and loaded the charred bodies into a cart. Then they piled them high so they could complete the cremation process and prevent the spread of disease with precious kerosene. When the building was too rickety to enter to retrieve the dead, the poured in kerosene or used flame throwers to complete the process.

In a few miles of travel the horse stopped. Nothing could urge it to move. Not food, water, whips or cajoling. The horse had discovered something they had not. Much of the construction materials had broken away to be melted into sharp hard glass like bits of horror that didn't quite get through their tough army boot soles. They were big enough to reach the hoof of the horse where his shoe didn't provide protection.

This horror of Dresden and of war was beyond belief. It was something that haunted Vonnegut for life. At one point he considered suicide due to depression. The fact that his mother took her own life may have played in to it as the children of suicide tend to follow suit. He managed to survive somehow. And he wrote. Plays, essays, readings, novels, autobiographical sketches, and college graduation addresses. His anguish, his worries, his anger, and his passion came out in his writing. He believed that everyone had a teacher, that lead you to be passionate about something. Thank them while they are still alive. Write them a note, call them, but find a way to thank them for being your inspiration.

Vonnegut was accused of repeating himself. His alter ego Kilgore Trout appeared in many books. Phrases and absurd techniques of presenting his writing appeared in many of his books. He had an affinity with decorating his pages with crude drawings of his own makings. Some critics called him little more than a comic book author. Yet millions of us loved him for what he wrote. There is one phrase he used frequently and two paragraph I've remembered since I read it.

"Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round,” Mr. Vonnegut wrote at the end of book, “was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes." He went on to say.

“Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes. And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam. So it goes.”

Kurt Vonnegut fell and suffered a significant head trauma six weeks ago according to his wife of 28 years. The progression of his brain injury lead to his death Tuesday night in hospital in Manhattan at the age of 84. So it goes. And every day the twenty four hour news networks tell me how many Iraqis and American men and women died today in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it goes.


Mauricio Babilonia said...

My favorite passage was the one in Slaughterhouse where he described the process of bombing in reverse. The most effective way I've ever seen to remind us that we can't unring a bell.

So it goes.

Bill said...

Well said.

Here's a link to Vonnegut reading that very passage:

Mauricio Babilonia said...

That's the one--thanks!

Nathan said...

Great tribute, Gordy. I hate to say I've never ready any Vonnegut. I've read a lot about him and I've always meant to pick some up. I'll have to up the priority on that.

Thanks for sharing your perspective.