Originally published April 12, 2007
Last night in New York, Kurt Vonnegut, novelist and freethinking humanist, died at 84. He had fallen recently and suffered brain injuries from which he never recovered. It brings me pause to imagine that his mind went before him, that he did not perish in a fiery plane crash into the peak of Kilimanjaro, as he once wrote he hoped to do. But then again, his 19 novels and countless other works were in effect a plane crash into the peaks and valleys of the 20th century. His work as a writer served to highlight the inequities of power, and to point out where we as a society have failed. Do not take this thought as if I am painting Vonnegut as a curmudgeon, for he was among the strongest voices for change and the betterment of our world in every work he penned.
You’ve probably read Slaughterhouse Five, if you haven’t then you should. It is his most popular book and a fascinating insight into a deeply personal tale of fear and war, thinly veiled as fiction. Published at the height of the Vietnam War, Vonnegut regales in a round-about way his own experience in Dresden during the second World War of hiding out in a meat locker with other POW’s while Allied forces fire-bombed the place back to hell. It took him 23 years to write, it will take us far longer to truly comprehend.
I could blather on ad nauseum about his books, but I’ll leave that to the literary critics and the New York Times. I’ll say only that Vonnegut was a writer with few equals, in both talent and vision. I have always admired those who refused to fall into the fold created by other writers, who refused to become clones and nothing more. Kurt was one of a kind.
If you read enough obit pieces about him you’ll learn, if you didn’t know already, that he was a “Freethinking Humanist”. He tended to shun conventional religion and politics in favor of personal responsibility.
So many of my favorites are gone; Kerouac, Hemmingway, Thompson, and now Vonnegut. Makes me wonder who will rise up to take his place, if anyone can, if anyone would.
As I write this I have a copy of Fates Worse than Death on my desk, his 1991 “Autobiography”, if you can call it that. The photo in the jacket is a classic. The wild, curly hair, the big eyes that seem to hold the sadness and the wonder of the whole world within them, the distinctive lines around his face forged through years of debate. The photo would make a fine tattoo someday.
On sight it is evident that Kurt Vonnegut was not a ghost, not a lost soul shuffling through a life that was only a comma. Vonnegut was a semi-colon, that unusual mark that always seems to catch us off guard, serving to remind us all that there is more to it.
He is survived by his 2nd wife, photographer Jill Krementz, several children and grandchildren, along with millions of people he never knew, never met, but influenced deeply. I would have like to have met him. It was on my list of things to do before I die. I guess it wasn’t on his list. Maybe someday time-traveling aliens will transport me back to a time where I could buy him a scotch. Then again, if he were alive today he would probably tell me that the 51st state is the state of denial, and that I should worry less about his work and more about mine.
The attached photo is the Vonnegut tattoo I finally chose and had done late last year, and subsequently the name of this blog.