Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday at the age of 84. He’d been having a lot of health problems lately, but his wife believes it was the liver cancer that finally did him in. I didn’t find out until I got home from rehearsal at around 12:30 in the morning, which is probably a good thing because I wouldn’t have been very good on stage after hearing the news. As it is, it kept me up most of the night and it’s all I’ve been thinking about today, so I thought I’d write an entry here for old times’ sake and just to get some of these thoughts out on paper.
To say that the impact he had on my life is immeasurable would be an understatement. Never has one person whom I’ve never met or had any actual contact with affected me in such a complete way, and I am fairly certain I won’t come across anyone else before I die whose works will shape the person I am and who I will become. A couple of years ago (right after freshman year, maybe? or sophomore) I had a Vonnegut Summer, where I re-read his entire library, and I will be doing that again this year in his honour. Last night to honour him I sat in the dark drinking scotch at 1 am by myself. I like to think he would have appreciated that, and recognized the sincerity of my action.
Books and reading were always my thing while I was growing up. Where other kids played little league or Pop Warner football, I curled up with a good book, or even a not-good book, I wasn’t picky. I devoured words. When I was very little, my parents read me bedtime stories until I was in preschool and I read the stories to them. In kindergarten the teacher had me read out loud to the entire class while she did paperwork at her desk. I was always ALWAYS the top achiever in the Book It! program in elementary school. For my entire life, reading has been where it’s at for me. And it was a hobby that my parents always encouraged. I still remember weekly (or even twice-a-weekly) trips to the library to get new books, and my mom taking me to the Scholar Ship every month or so to get the latest Goosebumps release. As a small child, the giant wooden bookshelves in our basement (which are at about eye-level for me as an adult) towered over me, and I viewed them as the ultimate challenge: to one day have read every book on those shelves. It was an impossible goal, as the books stored there were in a constant state of flux, but I worked away at it all the same. I started with the material in my age group, the Hardy Boys and the Big Book of Greek Myths and worked my way up. One of the best things about having an older sister was the books she got assigned for school. While I was in 2nd grade, I was reading the books they handed out to her 6th grade class, a trend that would continue until she graduated from high school. The family always helped me out with these, explaining concepts I didn’t understand and helping me find words in the dictionary to learn what they meant. You have to understand they were pretty liberal parents, I certainly didn’t live a sheltered life. They never talked down to me or told me to wait until I was old enough to understand. They fed my passion daily. And that’s why I remember my first Vonnegut experience so clearly. My absolute favourite place to read when I had time to waste was my parents bathtub, a huge, deep whirpool bath with jets and enough space on the rim to place a pile of books to read through. On really lucky days, I could spend n entire afternoon in there, adding hot water as the temperature cooled, only seeing another person when I called for my mom to put the jets on for another hour while I lost myself in these worlds that other people had created just for me. It was on one of these days that I grabbed the copy of Vonnegut’s ‘Breakfast of Champions’ off the downstairs shelf and brought it to the bath with me. I had just slipped in and opened the cover when my mom took one look at what I was about to read and grabbed it from my hands, explaining that it was not a book for boys my age and I could read it when I was older.
I was entranced. This had never happened before. I was already in the habit of sneaking around the house at night, and staying up way past my bedtime to read. I got in real trouble once for turning my closet (which had its own lightbulb inside) into a little fort, with blankets and pillows, so I could turn on the light, lie down, close the door, and read until I fell asleep. Why my mother thought I wouldn’t read the book as soon as I got the next chance, I don’t know. I hadn’t really cared about the book until that moment, I just recognized the title as the Wheaties slogan so I picked it up. But now there was no way I wouldn’t read that book. I know now that she was right, it is not a book for children. It is a book with adult language and crudely (but hilarious) hand-drawn images of assholes and vaginas and other sexual themes. It was my first exposure to a gay character (homosexuality being a concept I learned about from some highschoolers I was in a musical with in the 1st grade, but something I’d never discussed with my parents). It was certainly a book unlike anything I’d ever read before, with insane first person narrative and 4th-wall breaking and it absolutely ignored all the rules of literature I’d so far encountered. I don’t remember how long it took me to read it, if I snuck down that night or waited a week, and to be honest, I don’t remember what I thought of it at the time; if I understood it or enjoyed it for the ‘right’ reasons. I know I enjoyed it, but not necessarily because I got it.
I enjoyed it because it was illicit. I wasn’t supposed to be doing this. It was my dirty little secret that I was reading Vonnegut. And that feeling I got when I read my first book of his never went away as I read the rest of his work as I grew older. Until I got to college, aside from a few teachers and my parents, I was the only person I knew who had ever read any of his work aside from Slaughterhouse Five. By the time I graduated high school I had read everything he’d published and quite a bit he hadn’t, and collected almost every book still in print. In 22 years I can only think of 2 other authors who have come anywhere close to bringing about the excitement that cracking open a Vonnegut novel gives me. No, his work isn’t perfect. The majority of them are extremely similar thematically, and he repeats ideas and often sentences from one novel to the next. His speeches and non-fiction essays suffer from the same problems. But it doesn’t matter. Vonnegut has an absolutely ageless appeal. He was the voice of his generation, and as far as I’m concerned, the voice of mine as well. And when it comes down to it, this current group of youngsters will be echoing his sentiments in 15 or 20 years as well. He was a grumpy old man when he was only 25 years old and I loved him for it. He was fucking brilliant, hands down. As the years went by he remained as sharp as ever, especially in interviews. I remember watching him on The Daily Show about 2 years ago, promoting his latest (and now final) book, ‘A Man Without a Country.’ And he was hilarious. You could see the hero worship in Stewart’s eyes, and couldn’t blame him for having it.
I’m rambling now because there are only so many times and ways you can say that he a good and important writer. But he was so much more to me than that. Since I was the only one I knew reading him, he always felt like he was ‘my’ writer. The first time I encountered other people familiar with his works, I felt elated to find such companions, but then a sense of betrayal and disappointment, like our connection wasn’t so special anymore. The way some people feel, I imagine, when their favourite garage band signs with a major label and their latest video is number one on TRL. Suddenly I’m out in the world and I see how popular he is and it’s not this awesome underground book club I was a member of. It wasn’t cool to like Vonnegut, it was standard. But fuck it.
My dad was in a horrible car accident when I was about 2 years old, and it changed him in ways I never really understood as I was growing up, because I didn’t know what he used to be like. I never will. But I see flashes of it here and then. Because of what happened, he doesn’t ever read anymore. He listens to books on CD while he’s driving around for work, but he’s just unable to focus on words on a page for an extended period of time. So I never pictured my dad as an intellectual, or as well-read, while I was growing up. I knew the books had to have come from somewhere, but I guess I just assumed they were my mom’s, or gifts from family members, or just there to look impressive, or something. My mom was the one who was always reading (even if it was just some trashy Danielle Steel or John Grisham thriller). She was the one who took me out to get new books. Dad would read to me and help me with homework but I didn’t ever bother trying to discuss books with him, or think maybe he’d read a lot when he was my age or anything. And that all changed when I started reading Vonnegut publicly. Turns out all those Vonnegut first editions downstairs were his from when he was growing up. Same with that copy of Catcher in the Rye. And the Updikes. And the Irvings. All his. Well fuck me. Turns out dad was the intellectual reader after all, and now I suddenly knew where I got it from. Just like that my dad and I had something to talk about at dinner those nights it was just the two of us, or in the car when he was driving me somewhere. He would see what I was reading and get excited and talk about the first time he read it and we would discuss the characters and the message and everything and it was amazing. It was like this whole new door to who my dad is opened and we finally started to understand each other.
When I heard Vonnegut was dead I immediately thought it was some kind of sick joke, and I was furious that anyone would think that was funny, to post that on the internet. But it was true, and the anger was replaced with….nothing. Just the growing ball of unease in my pit of my stomach. I stared at the ceiling for about 20 minutes before going into the kitchen to pour some scotch, and then I sat down next to one of my own bookshelves, much smaller than the ones I grew up with, filled with Vonneguts old and new. I can still remember the first time I read most of them. They’re like a family to me, I grew up with two parents and a sister and a crotchety old chain-smoker from Indianapolis whose grandfather used coffee as the secret ingredient in his award-winning beer. He taught me about atom bombs and modern art and pubic hair and Eugene Debbs and he hated this planet but he loved every single fucking person on it.
I will miss you.