By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, February 15, 1996
Ask Kurt Vonnegut how it feels to be immortalized on a shopping bag, and he doesn’t hesitate.
“It feels as though I should be dead, ” he deadpans wearily.
Although his literary profile has been low since his heyday in the ’60s and ’70s, when he was one of America’s most popular and influential novelists, the 73-year-old writer is quite alive and still writing.
Vonnegut’s prominent place on shopping bags – and coffee mugs, T-shirts and even the walls of Barnes & Noble’s bookstores across the country – is graphic evidence of how highly regarded he remains. He will be speaking in Sacramento on Feb. 22.
“He’s one of those pop writers who sells books and appears on college course lists, ” says Jack Hicks, who is a professor of contemporary American literature at the University of California, Davis, and the director of the university’s creative writing program. He has watched Vonnegut’s 45-year career with admiration and says that Vonnegut has maintained a strong position in literature courses despite having slipped off the best-seller lists he once frequented.
“Professors think that the way he tells stories deserves serious critical scrutiny, ” he says. “And people actually read him. I have taught him in my contemporary American fiction class, and out of 150 students, there will be 10 people who have read everything he’s written.”
What Vonnegut has written is a string of 13 novels, along with several collections of essays, short stories and an autobiography, that helped define the darkly comic, bleakly fatalistic and wildly imaginative vision of postwar fiction. His most famous and popular book, “Slaughterhouse-Five, ” published in 1969, was a fictionalized, surrealistic account of the Allied firebombing of the German town of Dresden in 1945.
In that book, which was turned into a film in 1972, Vonnegut tackled the gruesome details with a mix of irony and comic invention. He managed to reveal the horror of the event, in which 135,000 people died in two hours, but with a comic distance that underlined the horror and raised philosophical questions. The book remains a staple of high school and college course reading lists.
“It’s important to note that he’s a comic writer, ” says Hicks. “Comic writers are not often considered serious, but the most serious writers are those who work in a comic sensibility, and they have a remarkable effectiveness.”
Vonnegut, speaking by phone from his home in Manhattan, is characteristically understated when explaining his comic vision.
“It’s just the way jokes work, ” he explains. “You build tension first, speak about something frightening – get them uneasy, change their bloodstream – then you say this isn’t really serious, so you give them permission to laugh. It’s tension and release.”
A generation of baby boomers grew up with Vonnegut’s playful tension and release, and absorbed his vision. But what, boiled down, is that vision? What is his message?
“If you have a message, send a telegram, ” he says. “With a book or a short story, you establish a mood, not a message.”
Message or no, Vonnegut’s unique point of view – a blend of the irreverent, grotesque and fanciful with real, distinctive human characters at the center – established his devoted cult.
“You’re dealing with a sensibility that connects all his works, ” says Hicks. “It’s unmistakably him. People who gather cults attract people because of the constancy of their vision and art. The successes of the ’60s (which also included “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” and “Breakfast of Champions”) were a happy intersection of a writer reaching his peak and an audience being eager for the type of stories he wanted to tell.”
The vision that attracted that audience, despite its humorous tone, takes its bleakness from more than mere historical awareness. The Dresden experience was important to Vonnegut. As a German prisoner of war, he spent the days after the bombing digging the burned bodies of German civilians out of the rubble. But there were more personal tragedies, such as the depression-induced suicide of his mother in 1944. Depression has continued to haunt him, even prompting him to attempt suicide in 1984.
As for the worldwide tragedies he addresses in his books, especially “Cat’s Cradle” and the 1985 novel “Galapagos, ” Vonnegut says he is even more pessimistic now.
“I hang out with scientists, for God’s sake, ” he exclaims. “There’s every reason to be pessimistic; the news is terrible. My whole. . . generation had utopian dreams, but, boy, they sure didn’t work out. We were going to build a great country, and it didn’t happen.”
Although he is liable to lapse into political commentary on his visit to Sacramento, Vonnegut’s declared aim in his hourlong lecture (and the half-hour “writer’s chat” that will precede it) is to address the craft of writing. He is an accomplished teacher, having taught at Iowa State long enough to mentor such contemporary writers as John Irving (“The World According to Garp”) and Gail Godwin (“Father Melancholy’s Daughter”).
“I try to write clearly, ” he says. “That’s the key. If you write a new idea clearly and convincingly, a person will feel that he knew it all along.”
As to the question of Vonnegut’s decreasing productivity and, perhaps, relevance, UC Davis’ Hicks says that very few writers, like very few musicians or actors or politicians, are able to maintain peak performance over decades.
“There’s nothing wrong with writing a few good books, ” he says. “Ralph Ellison wrote one (“The Invisible Man”) and spent the next 40 years trying to do it again.”
And Vonnegut remains a staple seller, says Randy Michael, assistant manager at Tower Books on Watt Avenue.
“He ain’t what he used to be, but who is?” he asks. “He sells fine. We sell one or two copies a month of some titles, one or two a year of others. For a store that carries everything, people like him are your meat and potatoes.”
And Vonnegut may see a resurgence yet. His third novel, 1962’s “Mother Night, ” has been made into a movie starring Nick Nolte and Alan Arkin. The film is scheduled to be released this fall.
“Mother Night” carries his most overt message, Vonnegut says. “The message is, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.’ The book is about a guy who pretended to be a Nazi in order to survive, and guess what – he was one.”
And as testament to the continued relevance of his earlier books, Vonnegut is still read by young people. Joe Powell, a humanities instructor at McClatchy High School, says that “Slaughterhouse-Five” is “one of the most favored books of the ninth grade curriculum – it’s required in the humanities program at McClatchy.”
The students like it because Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, “is very alienated from his contemporaries; he isolates himself, and kids in ninth grade are in a sort of isolation themselves, they want to make their own way at their own pace.”
Vonnegut is philosophical, even mathematical, about his current standing.
“Looked at in an actuarial way, most American writers have shot their wad by 55, ” he says. “So Scott Fitzgerald was lucky to have died when he did. My books are all OK. I’m just sort of out of pep now. It has slowed down – I’ve said most of what I had to say.”