Vonnegut's Last Laugh

A Talk with America's Greatest Living Saab Dealer

Putting away my tape recorder in his lawyer's conference room, I thanked Kurt Vonnegut for his time. A courteous man, he claimed to have enjoyed himself:

"It's nice to talk to someone who's pleasant."

When you're face-to-face with your last literary hero on these shores, you somehow hope you'll come away with a snazzier accolade than "pleasant." But let's not get embroiled in psychodrama. Mainly, I was curious: had he been talking to unpleasant people?

"Well, The New York Times sent this woman over. She hadn't read Timequake," his latest novel, which he calls his last. "She'd read one of my books in high school, she thought. And her idea of a good way to get to know me was to ask, 'So, Mr. Vonnegut--do you think about death a lot?"'

He started laughing, which he does more per hour than Nixon managed per decade. His laughter's symphonic--curlicues of glee, nicotiney piccolos joining in, kitchen-sink finish. Inside his grin, his teeth look like banged-up furniture in an unruly but happy household.

A minute earlier, he'd been laughing about his long-ago stint as a Saab dealer on Cape Cod--one of several unlikely gigs he took back when his writing couldn't always put food on the table. But by his lights, Vonnegut got off easy: "As a child of the Depression," he'd already told me, "I would eat shit if necessary in order to support a family. And I was very lucky that I never had an opportunity to write ads for a terrible product, or to work for a really awful country--company--or to do PR for a dictator, or anything like that. But I think I would have done it."

"So what were you like as a Saab dealer?" I asked now.

"Well, the car was no good, you see. That was sort of a handicap." He was already chortling. "But just like World War Two, I wouldn't have missed it for anything. I think I should get the Nobel Prize for that--for my loyalty to the Saab." If the Swedes do reward him for those or any other services, he's got his speech ready: "You have made me an old, old man." more psychodrama: when he laughs, he looks a lot like I imagine my father would look if he'd gotten within hailing distance of Vonnegut's age. A lot of those old World War Two guys laugh like they're all in a Peckinpah movie or something.

But as I left, I was pondering the job I could wangle at The New York Times. I'd sit at a little desk by the door and proffer handy information to reporters heading out on assignments: television was invented as the Spanish-American War raged. The Rough Riders came home to watch sitcoms. Queens is a densely populated area across the East River. (Oh, right: handy information. I overstep myself.) While Mr. Vonnegut may not think about death unduly, he's written a good deal on the subject, from his familiar standpoint of unsuckered curiosity about what people get up to and the odd ideas they hold regarding it. In 1969's Slaughterhouse-Five, his most famous and not even best book, 135,000 Germans perish in the Allied firebombing of Dresden, at which he was present as an American POW. A bird gets the last word: "Poo-tee-weet?"

I may think about death unduly, though. In recent years, it's crossed my mind that when Kurt Vonnegut goes--though at 74, he's hale as all get-out, even if he hasn't given up unfiltered Pall Malls--I'll no longer have a ready answer to the question, "Who's the greatest living American writer?"

That inane question isn't really worth having a ready answer to. But I've always liked mine, because it's so uncool. Vonnegut hasn't been chic since Nixon left us laughing. Then as now, only two classes of readers admired him: those who'd read hardly any literature, and those who'd read tons. Many people are expert in matters that leave me as stumped as a fire hydrant, but when it comes to appreciating perfect diction, complicated perceptions expressed with unwavering clarity, peerless literary carpentry, and really great jokes--well, nobody much cares, but it keeps me busy until that evening news goes down. To my rue, I also know cigarettes, and yow--who still smokes unfiltered Pall Malls? That's like surviving the Hindenburg. Some book-loving tobacco exec must keep one last factory going just for Vonnegut's sake.

Why not? Kurt Vonnegut wrote the most heartbreaking sentence in postwar American fiction: "Goodbye, Blue Monday." That's the slogan for Robo-Magic washing machines that Dwayne Hoover, the Pontiac dealer whose wife committed suicide, murmurs before starting his rampage in 1973's Breakfast of Champions, as he sits in the Midland City Holiday Inn--where Kilgore Trout, the scrofulous science-fiction writer, has just staggered in with his bare feet sheathed in plastic gunk from a polluted creek, and Bonnie MacMahon never serves a martini without joking, "Breakfast of champions." Wearing mirrored sunglasses, their creator's present too: Vonnegut's own then recent celebrity is one more addling this prismatic book refracts.

If a Martian landed in my yard and wanted to know what sort of country he was up against, I'd hand over my copy of Breakfast of Champions and wish him luck. I could get it back after they killed him. But nobody believes me when I say that it is among the most beautiful and hair-raising guides ever written to this fucked-up country, because it's so silly--decorated with Vonnegut's drawings of flags and people's assholes, and as sprinkled with attention-getting typographical doodads as a carnival handbill. The foolery cost him, since tastemakers who'd hailed Slaughterhouse-Five were now dumbfounded at what a chucklehead he was. Vonnegut's next novel, Slapstick, which went even further in being silly and haphazard to get the things he cared about said, earned him a public drubbing.

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