Looking for Vonnegut


In 1974 I was a reading-obsessed seventh-grader just discovering adult lit. My favorite book was Breakfast of Champions, newly out in paperback: a surreal explosion of a novel, featuring jokes and silly drawings, and the strangest ending, in which Kurt Vonnegut entered the story and set his characters free. Breakfast of Champions hit like a revelation, as if I’d cracked a code. All of a sudden, I got it: the absurdity, the gently anti-authoritarian perspective, the idea that nothing was as important as free will. No sooner had I finished the book than I set out to acquire all of Vonnegut’s writings, from the novels that were, by then, available in uniform paperback editions to his 1970 play Happy Birthday, Wanda June and his 1972 teleplay Between Time and Timbuktu. These latter titles, as it happens, would later qualify as arcana, but 1974 was the perfect time to look for them, since neither had been available long enough to be truly obscure.

Of all the volumes on the Vonnegut backlist, one consistently eluded me: Canary in a Cat House, the author’s third book, a collection of stories that had appeared in 1961 as a paperback original and was long out of print. Of the book’s 12 pieces, 11 had been reanthologized in Welcome to the Monkey House, so the only point in owning the earlier work was if you were a completist, which, I was discovering, I was. The more I thought about Canary in a Cat House, the more it bothered me that I couldn’t find it; the more I couldn’t find it, the more I looked. At 12 and a half, I knew nothing of rare-book dealers, but every time I stepped inside a bookshop, I’d head for the Vs, where I would brush my fingers across the familiar spines (The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five), as if I might will Canary in a Cat House into being. Sometimes I’d ask about the book, but only once did anyone discuss it with me, at the old Womrath’s bookstore on Madison Avenue, a few blocks from my house. The man who ran the place had a salt-and-pepper beard and spoke with a sibilance so lush it sounded like he was rolling grapes in his mouth. When I mentioned the title, I saw him look at a co-worker, lips creasing in a vague half-grin.

“Do you know what a cathouse is, son?” he asked, not unkindly. I could sense something beneath the surface of the conversation, but I couldn’t say what it was. For a moment, we looked at each other; then I shook my head.

I remember going flush as if the entire situation, like the adult world itself, was just beyond my grasp.

The same, of course, could be said of Canary in a Cat House, which over the next 30 years became a kind of personal holy grail. Although it continued to be elusive, I couldn’t help keeping an eye out, no matter where I was. In chain stores, I would scan the shelves as if a copy might have landed there by accident; on Cape Cod, where my family went during the summer (and where Vonnegut lived for nearly two decades), I haunted yard sales and thrift shops, sifting through old paperbacks as if mining ore. Once I looked Vonnegut up in the phone book. He wasn’t listed, but his wife was—I never had the nerve to call.

In the meantime, I read each new Vonnegut title and added more ephemera to my collection: first editions, mostly, with a few rarities, notably Sun Moon Star, a children’s book he published in 1980. On occasion, I imagined reconstructing Canary in a Cat House, especially after the 1999 release of Bagombo Snuff Box, a volume of uncollected short fiction that included “Hal Irwin’s Magic Lamp,” the “missing” 12th story from the book. I even had a close call with the real thing in a late-1990s phone conversation with the writer Harlan Ellison, who told me he had three copies and might be persuaded to part with one. I felt my breath catch as he went to check his library, but when he came back, it was to admit he’d been mistaken; he only had a single copy, after all.

Then about a year ago, I did a Google search. (In retrospect, it seems odd I hadn’t tried before.) There among the bibliographies and fan sites was a book dealer in Australia who claimed to have the paperback for sale. I sat, amazed, as my computer screen slowly filled with the cover: first the title, followed by a burst of copy (“Off the top of his head—the short, wild fantasies of one of America’s most imaginative young writers, the author of Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan“), and finally a multicolored face composed of images from the stories, with a rocket for a nose and a caged canary making up the iris of one eye. I laughed at the characterization of Vonnegut as a young writer, since he was over 80, although when Canary in a Cat House came out, he’d been younger than I was now. Mostly, however, I remember a sensation like shock, as if I were in the presence of a legend, something that, despite my pursuit, I had never quite believed. Quickly, I sent an e-mail to the dealer. Two weeks and $75 later, Canary in a Cat House arrived.

But here’s the thing: Now that I have Canary in a Cat House, I’m dissatisfied. Once in a while, I take the book out and peruse it, yet this feels more like handling an artifact than any kind of reading I know. Partly that’s because my edition is old, cheaply bound, and printed on acidic paper, which means that any time I touch it, I add to its decay. Partly it’s because I’ve already read these stories, which means Canary in a Cat House can never exist for me as a text to discover on its own. Partly it’s because ownership itself is anticlimactic, which means that after three decades, Canary in a Cat House has become less important for what it is than what it was: a vehicle for longing. Most of all, it’s because of how I came across the collection not by discovering it in some forgotten bookstore, but through the clinical precision of the Internet. There was nothing tactile or serendipitous about it; I just visited a website, and there it was. Thirty years ago, all I had was my own wanting, the sense that if I hung in long enough, I might have a small epiphany. On the Internet, though, epiphanies become prosaic, since nearly anything is within electronic reach. What does it mean that, in the end, I got Canary in a Cat House with so little effort, without having to leave my home? Maybe that in gaining a thing, we may lose it also, in regard to the open-ended possibilities of desire.

The irony is that these issues mark Canary in a Cat House, as they do all of Vonnegut’s writing, which deals not so much with what progress offers as what it takes away. That’s the message of Player Piano, Cat’s Cradle, even Breakfast of Champions, and it emerges here in “Deer in the Works,” with its clash between industry and nature, or “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” which imagines 12 billion people kept alive by drugs and seaweed, in a future bereft of everything but time. How, Vonnegut means to ask, do we come to terms with our advances when they often isolate us, keep us at a distance from the world? Where do we find room for humanity when we must interact increasingly with machines? Such questions are especially relevant in a society like this one, which has become, I think, the cathouse to which Vonnegut was referring, a culture of cheap thrills and instant gratification, where technology is a stand-in for the connections we desire. As for the canary . . . well, who else could it be but the author, although this has taken me 30 years to understand.

David L. Ulin is the author of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith (Viking). He edited Another City: Writing From Los Angeles (City Lights) and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (Library of America).