Vonnegut's Last Laugh

A Talk with America's Greatest Living Saab Dealer

"I was perfectly willing to believe that they were smarter than I was," Vonnegut said of critics, "because that was often the case in high school." He must've felt obliged to retrench. His novels since have been exquisitely crafted and profoundly felt, and in many ways they're richer than his '60s classics. But the later books are also wary of appearing too ridiculous or zany. Jailbird's flaw is the way its hero is made a minor Watergate criminal as thematic insurance; that's the sort of weighty subject sure to impress people with its seriousness, but it plainly didn't interest Vonnegut much.

When I pitched this theory, he decided I was putting him down. (Fuck, no: I was practically gooey with sympathy. But in approaching American writers, maybe my bedside manner needs work--like junking it, say.) Anyhow, he took refuge in base materialism: "Yeah, well, again, I had people to feed."

Those Depression guys are cagey--they'll submit to crass-sounding characterizations of themselves, and dare you to believe that cynicism tells the real story. Bob Dole, who's Vonnegut's age, has the same m.o. And maybe it wasn't an act. People who lived through the Depression never do believe they're safe. Still, it sounded preposterous: Slaughterhouse-Five could have kept the Vonneguts on caviar through the millennium. Another shrug: "There's envy, too. You hear about somebody else who got a million dollars, and your wife is sort of wondering, 'Well, what the hell's the matter with you?"' Cackle.

That was his only mention of wives. His first died a few years back, long after their divorce; the goodbye chat between "we two old friends from Indianapolis" is one of Timequake's loveliest moments. His second, literary shutterbug Jill Krementz, is very much with us and him, and nobody else snaps Kurt much. (Nice work if you can get it; she and Linda McCartney must get together and just laugh and laugh.) In one book, Vonnegut kept calling Krementz "Xanthippe," and even if their marriage survived that telltale moniker it sure looks like "Hello, Blue Monday" from here.

Here's the second most heartbreaking sentence in postwar American fiction: "You mean you are giving us four thousand bucks?" Lolita to Humbert, natch. Since she's a good American girl, and broke and pregnant right then, the cash is realer to her than anything--and so, too briefly, is she to us. It's one of the few times we don't see her through Humbert's rose-colored telescopic sights.

However unlikely it sounds--plenty, right?--I also think Vonnegut and Nabokov have things in common. No, not everything: Vonnegut, I love. Nabokov, I revere. But they're both the products of lost paradises, which reverberate in their work with a nostalgia unmarred by self-pity. Nabokov's idyllic, cushy Russian youth has the advantage of sounding like paradise; Vonnegut's was prewar Indianapolis, which doesn't. His parents didn't have a happy adulthood: his mother finally killed herself not long before Kurt was captured in the Battle of the Bulge. Even so, he's one of the few American writers to have had a happy childhood, which was also a privileged one, until his prosperous family went bust in the Depression.

That's why this utter democrat is so informed on a subject his more innocent readers must take for pure fantasy: class distinctions. America's class system is a swimming pool--too murky to see much of from the bottom, but clear if you've had a chance to look down. "Talk about class prejudice," Vonnegut confessed. "I didn't ever think we'd get any good books out of Vietnam. I thought the soldiers were all too blue-collar!" He may have been right.

From modesty, but maybe also on principle, he often plays the unlettered barbarian. But his background was cultivated and artsy. "I took clarinet lessons from the first chair of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra," he told me--not boasting, just with wonderment. "I knew Paul Davidson, who made the friezes on the front of my high school. You know--he was a sculptor!" Many novelists are cultural numbskulls off their turf, but Vonnegut's responsiveness to painting and music is ardent. Although he's basically a jazzbo, his eyes never lit up so happily as when he talked about the Beatles: "Godalmighty, it worked on all generations--we were all so cheered up by that. And talk about an accident! Just how did they stumble on music so attractive to so many people?"

He's also a literary man to his toes. If his novels skip the fancy footwork--though only someone who doesn't know how books are made would call such intricate productions simple--that's only because he doesn't confuse his response to art with a view of life. Even so, at least since Mother Night, his novels have often doubled as parables about art and artists. Timequake, in which Kilgore Trout finally gets to be the hero, is openly one: the building Trout rushes into to save the day houses the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Just like Nabokov, Vonnegut's also used far-fetched and seemingly utterly fanciful images and situations to render his emotional autobiography. By now, the Vonnegut clan's gone bust in many grotesque contexts; Dresden and prewar Indianapolis have been destroyed and redestroyed almost like the same century was busy getting rid of both; and Vonnegut's own ups and downs have been reimagined as any number of pratfalls in space and time. What's most remarkable is that he's managed to achieve all this in the form (not just the guise) of popular entertainment. He may be the last novelist to believe that first-rate literature can be popular entertainment, much less prove it. How did he stumble on writing so attractive to so many people?

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