This morning I had an epiphany, which rather surprised me, as I had it while staring into my soggy bowl of cornflakes. Anyway, it’s coming up on an election year and it’s the same old Catch-22. Is the lesser of two evils, still evil? Is Coke better than Pepsi? And what about the new Coke? How am I going to pay my rent this month? I’m 37 and still can’t figure out which party to vote against, and THAT”S when it hit me, I should be the next president. Hey, I need the money…
Ok, so the system doesn’t always work, and perhaps no one knew that better than Kurt Vonnegut Jr.-one of the most influential writers of the last 50 years. He didn’t need the Iraq war to see the oxymoron of military intelligence, that the fifties were a sugar coated lie, and that you shouldn’t always believe everything you read and everything that adults tell you. He was a cranky, eccentric, wise old man who scorned the madness of it all, but rarely failed to get a laugh or challenge my mind.
One of the first adult novels I remember reading was Slaughterhouse Five, tucked into a corner of a box of science fiction books, just waiting to be discovered. Vonnegut was as much a rite of passage as my first hangover. The world became funnier, more exciting, and a little more dangerous. If you were looking to question authority, question life, or ponder the meaning and absurdity of it all, and still keep your sense of humor, then Vonnegut was your mentor. After all, “the universe is a big place, maybe the biggest.”
Vonnegut, like his friend Joseph Heller, was a veteran of world war two. Vonnegut’s experience as a soldier and prisoner of war had a profound influence on his later work. He was captured at the battle of the Bulge.While a prisoner of war, Vonnegut witnessed the aftermath of bombing of Dressden Germany, which destroyed much of the city.
Vonnegut was one of just seven American prisoners of war in Dresden to survive, in an underground meatpacking cellar known as Slaughterhouse Five. “Utter destruction,” he recalled. “Carnage unfathomable.” The Nazis put him to work gathering bodies for mass burial, Vonnegut explains. “But there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in guys with flamethrowers. All these civilians’ remains were burned to ashes.” This experience formed the core of his most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five , and is a theme in at least six other books.
Critics ignored him at first, and then classified his deliberately strange stories and rambling plots as haphazardly written science fiction, much like one his recurring, alter ego characters, Kilgore Trout. Vonnegut’s works contain more than a dozen novels plus short stories, essays and plays and contain elements of social commentary, science fiction and autobiography mixing the bitter and funny with a touch of profound in a style that was undeniably all his own.
A key influence in shaping 20th century American literature with such books as Cat’s Cradle, Welcome to the Monkey House, Breakfast of Champions, and The Sirens of Titan– numerous writers credit Vonnegut with the desire to write, and the type of writer that stays with you long after you thought you had outgrown him.
You don’t have to be young and rebellious to appreciate that “We are what we pretend to be. So, we must be careful about who we pretend to be.” I know I’m not going to have to pretend to be saddened at his passing….