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.

"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?

"In a way," he told me, "there's been so much art, there's practically nothing left to do." He meant style: "What I don't like now is that writers don't write sonnets and sestinas, and so forth, because this puts a stress on the language which can have enormously beneficial effect. You're going along, and all of a sudden, to fit this goddamn metric scheme or rhyme scheme, only one word'll fit. It's a word you've hardly ever used in your whole life--and you put it in. And it resonates through the whole thing..." He calls shop talk about his trade "how the lady got sawed in half," and matter-of-factly shared one secret of his matter-of-fact art--learned, he said, from his newspaper work in high school and at Cornell: "You do entirely without suspense."

But one of the most interesting things Vonnegut said about his writing, and maybe himself, came out indirectly. I'd wondered why, aside from Dresden (big exception!) he'd written so little about being a POW. Here's what he told me: "Because it was an utterly passive experience. There was nowhere an opportunity to initiate anything, and so I would have to be--I'd have to be a poet, and just be saying all the time what it felt like to be in this kind of trap, or that kind of trap. Hell, I did nothing. It was all done to me. So you don't want to talk about it--it's not very interesting. What you wonder is why this guy's doing it to you," he finished, laughing. "He's the one with all the initiative."

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Vonnegut never saw himself as a rebel. At home, he'd found nothing to rebel against: "I was lucky in lots of ways," he said. "One was that my American ancestors were all people to be proud of....And their contributions to American life had been quite substantial and nice." Here's one: the panic bar on doors in public buildings was invented by his great-grandfather, the heraldically named Clemens Vonnegut. "That's reason enough for people to be glad the Vonneguts are here."

He's also glad he came from generations of skeptics. "We had nothing to be talked out of," he said--meaning himself, sister Alice (many years gone, and mourned in Slapstick), and brother Bernard (gone last November, and mourned in Timequake). "Like any organized religion: Mormonism or Catholicism or being Jewish, or whatever. We didn't have to give it up--we didn't have it in the first place. And so it was fun to talk about everything, and you couldn't get into much trouble no matter what you said."

Since then, he's gotten into lots of trouble. Slaughterhouse-Five is always being banned (and once burned: boy, did the ACLU tear them a new one) in one school district or another. He's debated right-wing Christers in more than one forum--"and watch out for those guys, because their shock troops are really something." Back during Vietnam, he was regularly attacked as a naysayer and heretic.

"I had 'em, though," Vonnegut recalled with deep satisfaction. "I was a veteran. I was a veteran! You know, I actually saw Germans! Man, that's--there's only one rank higher than that, and that's ‘Mother."'

Timequake won't annoy the country's self-appointed guardians. But it will irk some readers. The first time through, it sure irked me--I thought it was flimsy and unsatisfying. But that's been my first impression of all his books. Then I go through them again, and everything's there; it just isn't surrounded by cumbersome neon arrows, bellowing "Here it is." Nor can Vonnegut be faulted for tempering his idiosyncracies to make them appear less flaky; the book says purely what he wanted it to say, and nothing else.

So is it his last go-round? He said so: "Civilization's been very nice to me, and has just let me talk my fool head off. So there's not much bottled up in me. Nothing shrieking to be said." Yet he was soon merrily describing the new novel he'd idly thought up that morning: "About the Diana cult, and how it grows and becomes the largest religion in the world."

At least Di's a topic people would recognize. "You can't use history as an echo chamber in writing anymore," Vonnegut told me more than once. "People don't know...there was a Turkish empire, don't know about the Turks being turned away at the gates of Vienna--and it's all so wonderful!" he exclaimed, his eyes lighting up again. Then he remembered something that tickled him silly--and I know a parable when I hear one. "Years ago," he said, "Life magazine did a piece on [Duchamp], and one of his famous pictures is the Mona Lisa with a mustache. And the letters poured in! Everybody thought this was the Virgin Mary." He was brimming with hilarity now: "They'd always thought the Mona Lisa was the Virgin Mary..."

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