Kurt Vonnegut 1922-2007

Kurt VonnegutA year ago today, Kurt Vonnegut died in a fall. Not a bad way for a man like him to go. I hate to imagine Vonnegut senile or demented.

I considered posting this back then, but at the time, there was such a torrent of summings-up I decided the last thing the world needed was one more voice added to Vonnegut memorial cacophony.

I assumed these memories would remain private, but now, after a year, it seems appropriate to share them.

I can’t say I was an intimate friend of Kurt Vonnegut’s. I had been his student, and not a very good one. In the years that followed, however, I kept up with him sporadically, and our paths crossed from time to time in odd, unexpected ways you would have to call “Vonnegutian.”

Nobody knows a person entirely, especially one who has become a celebrity. Everyone contributes a few tiles to what becomes a vast intricate mosaic portrait. So here are my tiles, one year late–observations of Vonnegut as I experienced him over 35 years.

What I Remember about Kurt Vonnegut: a List and a Reminiscence

First, a little background:

In the fall of 1965 I showed up in Iowa City, fresh from college, to enter the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. (Technically, “The Program in Creative Writing, University of Iowa,” but nobody ever called it that.) I had been accepted as a poet, but something cooled me to poetry over the summer. So when I arrived, I presented myself at the office and somehow managed to talk the Workshop’s secretary into changing my courses–my entire curriculum, in effect—from poetry to fiction. I doubt if that could be done with today’s sophisticated admin systems, but in 1965, because I simply declared myself a fiction writer, I was a fiction writer. Voila!

Except…I wasn’t. But more on that as we go.

Of the two names teaching fiction, I could choose between Kurt Vonnegut and Nelson Algren. I had never heard of Vonnegut at the time, so I chose Algren, who had the bigger name, and had written one of my favorite books, The Man with the Golden Arm. But Algren, as great a writer as he was, paled in the classroom. Worse, he didn’t appreciate the edgy, late-Joycean stuff I was writing—the kind of fiction new arrivals from poetry turn out by the pound. He told me once that it reminded him of someone running a lawn mower back and forth under your bedroom window while you’re trying to sleep.

So I made a mid semester switch to Vonnegut, unknown as he was to me. He was only a year or so away from the boom that would make him a towering celebrity, but at the time, I knew him only as this tall, string bean of a middle-aged guy who, so I understood, wrote a genre (SF) I hardly ever read.

List

• Vonnegut was oblivious to his physical person, moved heedlessly, kind of shambled.

• He smoked, non-stop. Even when he didn’t, he sucked in air as though he thought it was smoke, so when he talked, the effect was of a slight speech impediment–these occasional explosions-in-reverse of intakes, snuffles, and sighs.

• His head was big, and his thick curly hair made it seem even bigger. There was a ghostliness about him–sad, haunted eyes, in the now-familiar long face (a much younger version, of course, but he seemed awfully old to me then).

• The first impression he made was casual, not at all forbidding, yet underneath was a subtle dignity that discouraged instant familiarity.

• In the classroom, his style wasn’t self-aware or presentational. He was mildly jokey, in a weary, ironic way, like the favorite uncle you love (even though you hate your parents).

• He rarely smiled and didn’t hang out. Looking back, I believe he had made a deal with the chronic low-grade depression that afflicted him lifelong: don’t stop me from work and basic life tasks, and I’ll give up any idea of life as fun.

• He was unpretentious. He spoke in a cultivated manner, because that’s how he had been brought up, but somehow it made him seem informal, plainspoken, not at all concerned with correctness or refinement.

• He was the first person I ever heard use the double “is.” As in, “the thing you have to remember is, is that you can’t sleep all day.”

• His rhythm was measured, deliberate, like a sage taking his time. He didn’t do anything fast. I recently saw some footage of him hopping around as he played an antic game of ping-pong–it didn’t seem at all like the Vonnegut I knew.

• His humor was sly, irreverent, with a morbid turn. His stance was always: the world hasn’t got a prayer of a future, but it sure is funny sometimes.

• When he laughed, it was an explosive, irresistible guffaw, as if the laugh had been held prisoner inside him, and now escaped in an outburst of snuffles and snorts.

• He often referred to himself, with quiet pride, as “a hack.” We knew what he meant: it was his way of telling us there was no dishonor in writing for hire. (He was an engineer by training and his day job had been to spin corporate PR for GE.)

• He was kind, and it was not a pose. I never heard him put anyone down. He might blow off the future of the universe, but he valued his own dignity and that of others. When I went to him for advice, he was considerate and gracious–even though I’m sure he KNEW (as I know now) that I was a clueless idiot.

Remeniscence

I had gotten myself into trouble by assuming I could keep pace with the young MFA fiction writing thoroughbreds, when my preparation had been as a poet. Why didn’t I see it coming? I don’t know, but it was quickly evident that I hadn’t taken my baby steps in fiction, and at Iowa, in the MFA program, anyway, it was assumed you were way past baby steps. Trying to write a great, sonorous “voice” novel got me hopelessly lost in the daily meanderings of a character named Max who was even more mixed up than I was. Eighty pages in I had no story, no reason to continue, no reason to stop, nothing but verbiage– nice in places, but amounting to nothing. All I saw in it was confusion and defeat. All I felt was a compulsion to escape.

When I skipped out on Iowa (without a degree) I couldn’t make myself say goodby to Vonnegut. I was leaving to be a filmmaker and musician–”I’ve got bigger fish to fry,” I would tell people. But there was no escaping the burning shame I felt, because in my own mind, I had failed. I have no idea what grade he gave me for that unfinished semester. Had I stayed and finished, he might have given me a B…maybe even a B-plus. But when the chance came up later, I didn’t ask him. I doubt if he would even have remembered.

Our paths crossed a few times in later years. He loved music, even though he was far from musical. Once I ran into him on a New York street, randomly, just like in a Vonnegut story. I was in the city with a band, for a club date on 2nd Avenue, so I said, “Want to hear some music tonight?” He was between wives, had just moved into a bachelor apartment just up the Avenue. He showed up and stayed all evening, drinking with the band between sets.

Nothing was said about my defection, and this struck me as weird. I felt an urge to justify having had gone AWOL, so at one point I launched a ridiculous cliche like: “I’ll write about all this someday.” He waved it off like a pitcher demanding a different sign from his catcher–”Look at this place,” he said, looking around the club as if it were an enticing garden, “–and you’re on a break from work. That’s amazing, don’t you think? Write about it…well, you know what writing’s like.” He thrust his chin down until his head and neck became one, then he nodded up and down pointedly, all the while keeping his big dog eyes fixed on me. Then he glanced at the stage. “I’d be up there in a shot, if I could be.”

This was not the first time I had been dumbstruck by something he said, something that seemed so far from the expected as to be almost totally absurd. Here I had blown it at Iowa, had never been close to published. He, on the other hand––here he was with all those books out…and he was telling me he’d throw it away for four or five sets a night on a club stage? Was he kidding me? I didn’t get it.

Some time later, he wrote me a note, in which he said: “I will be very sorry if you don’t make music regularly for the rest of your days. It’s the very best thing to do with life, as far as I’m concerned. I sure wish that I was musical.” I still didn’t get it.

Now I do, utterly, and I believe he meant it, meant what he said at that moment. And of course he was dead-on: being a musician was totally right for me then, just as later, after so many years, writing fiction would finally take its proper place at the head of the table.

And of course, he had made music. He had just made it another way, is all (“is all,” tacked on like that, was another of the conversational ticks I first heard from Vonnegut).

So, he got old like everyone must someday. I saw his appearance on The Daily Show and wished he had not gone on. That guy was not really Vonnegut, but a creaky half-version of him, doddering, losing it, struggling to play, one more time, the role the media had defined for him and now expected to see whenever they trotted him out. This was a pale shadow of what you might call the public Vonnegut–except I knew there was no public Vonnegut; never had been. It was a media illusion and one he wasn’t comfortable maintaining. He was a private man, an introvert who made accommodations with the world to get along in it. The most comfortable I ever saw him was by himself, in one of the old quonset hut offices at Iowa, smoking away, sunk so deep in his privacy that talking to him was almost like waking him up.

The last time I saw him in person was at Duke a few years back. I didn’t go to his talk, I just wanted to say hello, so I went to his signing at the student store, immediately following the talk. A huge line spilled out into the street, in the rain. Writers just don’t get those kinds of lines, unless they are JK Rowling. There was an announcement: “Mr. Vonnegut will sign books only for the first 50 people in line. The rest of you…sorry.” I wouldn’t have had a chance in line, so I asked the guy to give Vonnegut my name. He came back and led me in a different door and there was Vonnegut, in a low chair with a pile of books.

Nice suit, I thought. I couldn’t remember having seen him wear even a tie, much less a suit. We made a little small talk, but I noticed he kept looking at me as if he saw something in my face that was too dire for words. I had an urge to say, “Is there a spider on my nose or something?” Then I realized what was going through his head: you look so damned old! If you’re that old, how the fuck old am I? I instantly had the same thought in reverse. He was shrunken and frail; his back was bent with a widow’s hump. He was finally beginning to lose his bushy hair. There was a phrase from Kilgore Trout, his wacky fictional sci fi author: “Ah Time, thy Pyramids!” My friend Lipsky and I had a 30-year running joke with that phrase. Now it wasn’t funny.

I did the one thing I had wanted to do for years: I dropped a copy of a novel I had written into his hands. He looked at it for a minute without much reaction, and then grinned, as though getting a joke, late: “Oh, yeah, I heard about this,” he said, and that was that.

And something dawned on me: he didn’t see this moment, this gesture, as I did–a triumph, a victory at last over personal chaos. He just saw another novel, another of the hundreds, thousands… He once said (in class, I think) you know you’re old when life just starts repeating.

When we said goodby, I realized it was goodby forever–that I would never know what grade he gave me, and that who cared, anyway? He was so beyond all that, and so was I. He was getting ready to come in from the cold at long last, like his character Howard Campbell in that favorite of mine, Mother Night, (“ollyollyoxinfree!”). And when he did come in, it would be not with dread nor even with relief, but only simple affirmation of the knell he had always sounded on the future of the earth, careers, love, humanity–just death, is all.

I plunged back into the rain and ran like hell.

_____________________________

This is the best link I could find to Vonnegut as he really was. He’s a little “up” for the interview, a little slicker than ordinary, but other than that, EXACTLY how I remember him.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mark August 12, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Thanks for this reminiscence Bill.

Vonnegut is the reason I became a writer, so it was nice to think of him in those early days, before he became the cultural icon he was. I never had a chance to meet him, but your picture confirms the one I always had in my head; his writing may have been occasionally difficult or challenging (as all good satire is), but at heart he was a deeply kind human.

It’s good you don’t regret the decision to leave the program too much — if we all were tortured by the bad choices of our callow youth, we’d never write anything worthwhile.

2 Bill Henderson August 12, 2009 at 7:36 pm

Thanks, Mark. It was a happy piece of luck to know him, and I think about him all the time. I hardly ever think about MFA I stepped out on.

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