I read Kurt Vonnegut throughout the '70s, a bit in the '80s, and then didn't. The last of his novels I read was Timequake. I don't remember much of it, but the memory is a warm one because it was Vonnegut and because his lovable reprobate of a character, science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, makes a return appearance in that volume. By the time I read Timequake I was 41. My youthful enthusiasm for Vonnegut's work had waned, and that was a regrettable thing; but life goes on. I think the reason I stopped reading him was because of a phenomenon Vonnegut himself once described. I forgot exactly how he put it, but it was in response to critics who described his work as sophomoric. Vonnegut's reply somewhere (maybe to me over the phone at two a.m.) was that they use that word because he asks the kinds of questions in his books that college sophomores ask. Answers are never proffered, but we move on and simply stop asking why it is we're born only to suffer and die, or why mediocrity is the American Gold Standard, or what is the nature of evil. Is it just bad chemicals in the body and brain? The more serious and mature of us stop asking those questions. Not because we ever receive an answer, but only to avoid the label "sophomoric."I suppose Slaughterhouse-Five was the first of his novels I had read. For two years in the late '60s I had figuratively folded my arms across my chest, chewed my gum as if it were an ongoing cosmic endeavor, and rejected anything intellectual such as reading books, much less going to college. I remember the novel had recently been issued in paperback, and I saw it on a rack at Kennedy airport while waiting for a stand-by flight to Luxembourg. I grabbed it and Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo, and a science fiction novel called Garbage World, by Charles Platt, who taught a course in SF at the New School in New York.
For the next three days, sleeping on my backpack next to my girlfriend (later wife) in the airport, I read those novels. Slaughterhouse-Five was last. For the next week, every time a car passed us on the road north to Amsterdam, I would say, "So it goes," until my girlfriend begged me to stop saying that. So I said, Poo-tee-weet?" instead. Another Vonnegutism from that book, and it drove Diane equally crazy.
During the '70s I wrote science fiction, getting encouraging rejections such as, "Near miss...maybe if ending were more upbeat..."etc., just as Vonnegut (or his agent) seemed to be distancing himself from that label. I don't know if it was Vonnegut's calculation that was behind this or someone else's, but it was a smart move and it worked. Had he not done so, I would not be reading about his death on Friday the 13th of April (though he died the Wednesday before) as a major news item. His passing would be back-page stuff, much like, say, that of Philip Jose Farmer, a brilliant SF writer who wrote Venus on the Half Shell, under the name Kilgore Trout. And it was Farmer who wrote that, not Philip K. Dick, as I read somewhere on the Web. Farmer also wrote dozens of other groundbreaking and brilliant stories under his own name, though never breaking out of that genre ghetto.
I was to sell my first two short stories in the fall of 1980. Earlier that year, I was tending bar at a place in Manhattan, at 52nd and Second Avenue, called Dustin's. It was a slow Saturday afternoon on a fine spring day, with only two customers drinking the heart right out of it. They were middle-aged and attractive, divorcees is my guess, and instead of being seated at the bar they were at a deuce next to a window open onto Second Avenue. Vonnegut walked by, recognized them, and stood outside talking to them for some time. I approached and asked if he would like a drink on the house and told him I was a fan. He said he was on some meds and thanked me. I said something stupid about "bad chemicals," a reference to something in his books as an explanation for horrific human behavior. He smiled and said something I've forgotten.
Several days later I read an interview with him in which he said he had insomnia and wished people would call him up in the middle of the night. Soon after and fairly lit on something or other, I did.
"Don't know if you remember me. Bad Chemicals, the bartender at Dustin's on 52nd? I read in [the Voice?] that you might be open to late-night phone calls, and your number was listed...."
"Oh, yeah, that's fine. I remember you."
I suggested he might be bombarded with late-night calls now, and he said that was not the case. I was the first, and he did not regret saying it. We talked mostly about science fiction, and his character Kilgore Trout, and insomnia, and pills, and his children, Chicago, the convention in '68, William Burroughs, Genet, Terry Southern, a recent rejection slip I had received from
Galaxy Magazine, and when we rung off he said, "Call anytime." But I never did. The next day I was hung over, embarrassed, unclear as to several things I had said.
I will certainly remember some fiction-writing advice he gave me and almost apologetically. "It's hack advice, really," he had said. "Just don't write any sentence that does not do one of two things: advance action or character. That's it. It's like a two-part engine." I wrote those two stories -- my first sales -- that summer and most of my first (published) novel with that in mind.
I always thought I might talk with him again sometime. I regret not being able to ask him how one manages, as he did so well, to write from profound sadness without, at any time, appearing to whine -- just as he did in those closing pages of Slaughterhouse-Five, which Wilfrid Sheed called "a funny book at which you are not permitted to laugh, a sad book without tears." If you haven't read it, I'm giving nothing away. It is the end of WWII in Dresden, Germany. Character Billy Pilgrim and other American prisoners of war emerge from hiding to the smell of "bodies rotted and liquefied, and the stink was like roses and mustard gas.
"There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind. There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped. Birds were talking.
"One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ' Poo-twee-weet? '"