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American Writers

Kurt Vonnegut,Jr 1922-2007
James Campion
 All this happened, more or less
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
"Slaughterhouse Five"

The greatest living American author is no more. Who's left? Salinger? That's about it. In the last few years we've lost the liberator, Kesey, the hammer, Thompson, and now the conscience, Vonnegut. What is left us, Mailer? Please. Wolfe? Nah. Vidal. Nope.

I know I've lived too long now. I hate aging. It slowly brings to an end everything left to believe in. There, I said it. I believed in Kurt Vonnegut. I wanted him to be immortal. Yeah, I did. It's silly. But there are far sillier things to believe in. I use this space weekly to decry them. This ain't one of them.

I suppose when I heard the patron saint of humorists, our Mark Twain, our flatline realist, our goofy satirist, our voice of reason crying in the wilderness had left the mortal coil, I thought of "Slaughterhouse Five". Who didn't? But for me it represented a first. It was the first true novel I ever read. And it moved me like nothing else, save maybe a few Who songs and a movie or two. Firsts have a way of doing this: First love, first car, first ass kicking, first success, first failure. The written word as epiphany. "So it goes." It said. "Poo-tee-weet" it said. This was wisdom best heeded by youth when you could still change things, or at the very least believe you could still change things.

This is what Vonnegut taught me: Even if you can't shift consciousness, make sure you record the nonsense before it fades from memory: the horrors and inequities and petty human frailties, the feral meanness that runs free in our blood.

 I liked the idea that Vonnegut was still breathing because he never gave up being a cockeyed pessimist. He was good at dualities because he said over and over "Think for yourself." He never left a building without conveying that. And he never let a day go by without living up to the living embodiment of the phrase. Vonnegut was good to us because he shared his complexity. He did not hoard it like a monk. He shared it. No tourniquet needed. Let it bleed, as the Stones once sang.

Vonnegut echoed what my mother had spent my formative years paining to impart: The only people invisible in this world are those who allow destiny to kidnap them. This is the falsehood of existence, that we are cursed or blessed or blindsided or handed labels and stations and fates. It is a lie easily punctured, a ridiculous crime perpetuated on us without individuality, without promise, without grit and without pride.

All that Rand bullshit that took thousands of words in The Fountainhead to decipher, Vonnegut managed to unfold in quick-witted sentences with a laugh included. The long diatribe about self-worth and freedom from the fold jam-packed with engagingly damaged characters making a mockery of "decent society" and "cultural mores" and the "prison of conformity".

From Billy Pilgrim to Kilgore Trout there is a wonderful absurdity to Vonnegut's humanity. And why not? He considered himself a Humanist. Sometimes we put a busload of fate in subjects that are flawed and weak and terrified, so we can't help putting our faith in words. Sometimes it's all that's left us. Separates us from the animals. Sometimes it puts us right next door. Most times right inside.

Vonnegut's best books, "Cat's Cradle", "Breakfast of Champions", "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" put you inside the animal/human, and make you feel his/her confusion, pain, joy, and still more confusion. His best characters have a floating sort of feeling, but not surface floating, submerged. It's the kind of daily drowning that makes us gasp for air, makes us wonder what's above the surface, like heaven or aliens or universes piled upon universes, and in its wake how we're so insignificant and randomly forgotten if not for each other.

And that's why when Vonnegut returned from the horrors of the Second World War, he had no choice but to get to the bottom of the animal/human and down to the study of existing in impossible surroundings -- waves crashing, the undertow pulling us downward. Then, unexpectedly, hope. Weirdly so, as if seeing a horse dealing blackjack or a three-headed waitress serving you coffee. Hope, appearing out of the carnage of our torment. Hope as a bird, a sunset, a child's laugh, the bending of time.
Hope as a word.

Vonnegut, as all great writers, wrote because he had the need. And it's that need that appears on every page of his best work, a desperate plea to the author or authors of this absurd waltz of life. My favorite of his quotes, and one I used at the heading of my only novel to date, is "In nonsense is strength." Oh, yes. It says nothing and so much all at once. To live, to hope, to dream, to shoulder on, one must find strength in the meaningless random ballet. The alternate route lies madness.
    Yes, I believed in Kurt Vonnegut.
    He was America's greatest living author. Unfortunately it is a title which demands existence.
    Now what?
    "So it goes."

© James Campion May 2007

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