It was snowing the April morning that we heard Kurt Vonnegut died. Bits of snow blew through the open buds of our redbud tree like lost commuters wondering, “What are we doing here?nn
In spite of the cold, peony shoots stood up in the garden, and the lawn, green as Ireland, was flecked with violets.nn
This was the sort of news I passed along to Mr. V when he called. Talking about the weather and what was blooming seemed a way of conveying the state of things in his hometown of Indianapolis to him.nn
He had grown fond of this place.
One evening not that long ago, my son and I met Mr. V in Indianapolis for dinner at a downtown hotel. As he came down the stairs, before so much as saying hello, with eyes wide, he asked, “Why did we ever leave Indianapolis?nn
“So you could be an artist?” I asked in return.nn
Kurt Vonnegut’s relationship to the city was complicated. It was a city his family helped build; a place where he claimed to have a happy childhood and a public school education that he treasured. But his father, an architect, couldn’t find sufficient work here and his mother committed suicide. When Mr. V, arguably at the height of his powers, went to the department store L.S. Ayres for a book-signing in the late 1960s, it’s said nobody showed up.nn
This, of course, changed.nn
Most recently, people waited for hours for the box office to open at Butler University’s Clowes Hall so that they might get tickets for the speech he was going to give there April 27. Many were disappointed when it quickly became clear the supply wouldn’t come close to meeting the demand.nn
I met Vonnegut for the first time in Indianapolis, in 1991. He had agreed to be the keynote speaker at a book festival I organized called Wordstruck. Although I read Cat’s Cradle when I was in college, for some reason I hadn’t picked up a Vonnegut book since. Maybe that was because he was everywhere, a ubiquitous part of the cultural landscape. At any rate, I was just hoping the guy it was my job to drive around town would be easy to get along with.nn
I had nothing to worry about. Mr. V was staying with childhood friends near Williams Creek. When I delivered him there, I was asked to come inside for lunch. This was a gift. The afternoon was spent drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and catching up. At one point our hostess leaned close to me and whispered, “He was such a beautiful boy, with the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen.nn
Needless to say, I began reading the books'all of them, as their author took justifiable pride in saying, still in print. Oh, what I’d been missing! There was the humor, that dark sense of human comedy and hapless mischief. But there was also Vonnegut’s slapstick way of collapsing fact and fiction, like that boy he wrote about, roughhousing with his favorite dog on the living-room carpet, as a way of seeking something like the truth.nn
And there was the voice. The voice above all.nn
Mr. V told me he learned to write when he worked for the Chicago News Bureau after the war, covering accidents and crime. The reporters called in their stories on the phone, they spoke and someone on the other end typed the words. No wonder reading a Vonnegut book is like having the man himself by your side. That voice is what enabled an otherwise avant-garde artist to be embraced by a massive public. It made Vonnegut the literary equivalent of The Beatles.nn
Many people, even admirers, persist in calling Vonnegut cynical. I’ve never understood this. A cynic believes the truth doesn’t matter. If going to war suits him, he’ll make up reasons for doing it and to hell with the consequences. A cynic believes the only real crime is getting caught.nn
Truth, or at least our efforts to try and figure out what that means, always mattered to Mr. V. What he’d seen of human behavior made him a pessimist about the future we’re making for ourselves. But this was also a man who, upon hearing of the almost inconceivably simultaneous deaths of his sister and her husband, responded by adopting three of their children.nn
“There’s only one rule I know of babies,” he wrote, “â€˜Goddamn it, you’ve got to be kind.’nn
Tonight the sunset breaks through heavy clouds. Birds are singing in the crisp, platinum-colored air. I can imagine the smile this scene might put on Vonnegut’s face, him calling out: “Get a load of this!
It’s all he ever wanted us to really, really see.
David Hoppe met with Kurt Vonnegut in 2005 to talk about his final book A Man Without a Country. The interview follows:
“It’s surely my last book,” says Vonnegut from his Manhattan home of A Man Without a Country. For the past several years, Vonnegut has insisted that he’s retired from writing. But the Bush administration forced him back into the open. He began contributing short blasts about the state of the union to Chicago-based magazine In These Times. These pieces were finally collected by Dan Simon of Seven Stories Press and A Man Without a Country, a New York Times Best Seller for nonfiction, was born.nn
Hoppe: I’m intrigued by your idea in A Man Without a Country that geniuses like Shakespeare and Einstein might have been plagiarizing the future.nn
Vonnegut: We’re dumb about a lot of things, but I think we’re really stupid about time. I think the future has as much to do with the present as the past. With the shape of animals, for instance'evolution. Part of that is in the future. The big clue to me is about the second world war causing the first one because the first one was about absolutely nothing.nn
H: How do you think things are going these days?nn
V: Well, I think the game is over, probably. We have so damaged the environment, and I think it will continue to decay and support less and less life. One title I considered for the book was The Fifty-First State'and I don’t mean Puerto Rico. I mean denial. What we’re denying is all the harm we’ve done with fossil fuels. I got here in 1922 and all this crazy shit was already going on. Gasoline. It was just more fucking fun and importance than most people had ever had before. It was like crack cocaine. It was just so much fun. You could be a nobody and, Jesus, the next thing you know you could be going 60-70 mph! I remember my mother got in an argument with my father one time'she jumped in the car.nn
H: She drove away nn
V: It’s so easy. And the Republicans are the Don’t Stop the Party party. The party is about to end. Nobody has come up with any substitute for petroleum, and this is really going to be something'maybe in the next year. Suddenly, all the industrialized nations will become big junkyards.nn
H: Well, turning away from junkyards for a moment nn
V: I don’t want to be the party pooper nn
H: In your book, you call yourself one of America’s Great Lakes People. I’d like to ask you what it is about fresh water.nn
V: It doesn’t taste like chicken soup. Salt water is flavored. Who wants to swim in something with flavor? Swimming was always very important to me, and then I went to the East Coast and found this foreign substance. I associate it with foreigners (laughs).
Reversal of gravity
ttH: You also write about loneliness in the book. What is it about Americans that makes us so lonely?
V: Everybody should have an extended family, the same way everybody should have vitamin C. People will do anything to get a family because that’s the survival unit. The extended family, that is. The nuclear family is no survival scheme whatsoever. It’s terribly vulnerable. The popularity of the Religious Right is that it’s a family. You can offer all sorts of families. It’s why the humanists aren’t more popular than they are'it’s because we don’t gather.
H: We’ve been seeing nuclear families broken apart by the hurricane nn
V: I don’t mean to intimidate you, but I do have a master’s degree in anthropology nn
H: I know!nn
V: (laughing) Anyway, I think what is really splitting this country is fundamental disagreement over what appears to be a violation of nature’s law, which is the empowerment of women. Since we split off from the chimpanzees, a major part of every culture, not even to be questioned, has been that women are subservient to men. Empowering women is a truly radical idea. I think that is probably the major rift. Abortion is a slight part of that. And gay marriage. But both of those are essentially red herrings. A lot of people don’t even realize what they’re soreheaded about: It’s the empowerment of women. The reversal of gravity.nn
This is without precedent in all of human experience. What a thing! For us to empower women. And, many women, as well as men, don’t like it. They put it into Christian terms'they’re Christian women, subservient to their men. But they can adjust to being subservient, they’re proud of being subservient.nn
H: The idea that we are all equal nn
V: â€¦ is a violation of natural law. Thomas Aquinas said there are three kinds of law: There’s God’s law, then there’s natural law'that’s the Ace and the King. Men’s law is the Queen. There are three cards in the deck. Nature’s law, which is very powerful, is what nature, evidently, wants. So somebody like Voltaire or Goethe can view it as natural that black people should be servants. Obviously. And women, obviously, are there to serve their men. Obviously.nn
H: But that’s according to men.
V: Sure. How else can we tell what nature’s up to? (laughs)
Pictures don’t do anything!
ttH: What can people do to sustain community?
V: Well, a lot of people are doing it through supposed Christianity. I was talking to one guy who was very bright. He said that a whole lot of people will join a political movement'feminism, pacifism'in order to get identity. And, once they get that, they don’t work very hard for it.
One time I went campaigning with [former U.S. Sen.] Birch Bayh across Indiana. It was me in the airplane with Angie Dickinson and Roosevelt Grier. The four of us were going from town to town and appearing at union halls. Wherever we went, they were waiting for us, often with bullhorns, and they would say, “There he is, ladies and gentlemen, commandant of the American Auschwitz. How many babies did you kill today, Senator?” These people were so excited. They had something to do that night.nn
H: At another point in the book, you say you don’t think people are born with imagination.nn
V: I think it is a feature of civilization. Of a very stable, settled life. I wouldn’t die for that idea, it just seems to me that’s right. Look, in order to enjoy the arts, you have to have an imagination. My brother was the ultimate technocrat, the Ph.D. physicist from MIT. When I was 9 and he was 19, he would talk about paintings. Of course, Father was a painter and an architect, and we’d go to art galleries in Indianapolis, and there used to be a lot of painters making a living there. And my brother said, “Pictures don’t do anything!” (laughs)nn
Of course, literacy is an extraordinary skill. All of the arts are really practical jokes making people respond to something that isn’t really happening. You can take control of some people’s imaginations with nothing but ink and paper.nn
It used to be worthwhile to learn to read and write in order to be entertained, because there wasn’t that much going on. It was good news in England when a big, fat, new Dickens novel appeared because that’d take care of winter.nn
H: George Bush makes sense in a culture where the imagination has been diminished.nn
V: With the cooperation of television, too. A lot of things are too bad. A memorable thing that Albert Camus said was that life is absurd. I would call it ridiculous, if you look at it. Anyway, Camus said that life is so absurd there is only one major philosophical question.nn
H: And the question was?nn
V: Suicide. Either you kill yourself or you keep going, leading an absurd life. So that’s what we do. And he was lucky. He got killed in an automobile accident (laughs). I’ve certainly tried.nn
H: You’re not driving Saabs anymore.nn
V: No, I’m not driving anymore. I just don’t want to kill anybody.nn
David Hoppe is the arts editor for Indianapolis’ NUVO weekly. The original, longer version of this story can be found here.nn