Friday, April 20, 2007

God Bless You, Uncle Kurt

From this corner, The passing of Kurt Vonnegut doesn't just feel like a literary loss of epic proportions.

More than any other author, Vonnegut felt like a friend to me, or more accurately, like my favorite uncle: The one with the crotchety-but-compassionate voice of wry, offhanded wit that managed to expand your mind massively even while you laughed your ass off.

Like his role model in letters Samuel Clemens, Vonnegut was a master at calling bullsh%t on the greedheads, warriors, paper-pushers, and hypocrites who all-too-frequently run this world. He did so without ever letting his own--or his readers'--foibles and frailties skate by, and he wasn't above interspersing intense insights with the occasional fart joke or flight of science fiction fancy. Kurt Vonnegut's work forever changed the way I look at the world.

His writing provided a big source of bonding between my girlfriend (now wife) and me back in the day. In high school I'd read--and like any rational human was utterly transfixed by--Slaughterhouse Five, but Rita was a dyed-in-the-wool fanatic who'd devoured all of Kurt Vonnegut's books, and in my second year of college she'd turned me on to many of the man's other works. I sucked down Cat's Cradle, Player Piano, Welcome to the Monkey House, Breakfast of Champions, and Galapagos rapidly, and was soon as true-blue devoted to his prose as she. Vonnegut's economy of style--and his ability to touch on the deepest issues with a voice that somehow melded horse sense, pungent wit, unbridled imagination, and bloodied-but-unbowed humanity--struck a major chord.

I saw Kurt Vonnegut speak on three separate occasions. The first was in 1987, when Rita and I took our first road trip together to Portland, Oregon to see him. We spent the night in a run-down hotel that probably hadn't seen substantial repairs since the Depression (the clawfoot bathtub in our room was so dark with rust rings we didn't dare bathe). It was downright squalid, but at least it was atmospheric (and dirt-cheap) squallor. Most importantly, it was close to the Meeting Hall where the man was speaking.

The bulk of Vonnegut's lecture that night consisted of him using Hamlet to illustrate--in that drily hilarious deadpan Vonnegutian style--how the greatest, most resonant, most real drama follows a straight line, rather than the sweeping arcs ascribed to formula story construction. It proved to be an analysis that he'd trot out during every speaking engagement we saw, but it never stopped amusing or inspiring me--largely because it never stopped ringing true. In person, Kurt Vonnegut was exactly as he was on paper--socially-aware, funny as hell, and absolutely, blessedly void of any airs.

Memorable as that Portland lecture was, even more memorable was its climax. Once he finished speaking, the lanky author shuffled towards the end of the stage, fumbling under the cuff of his jacket sleeve. Poker face firmly in place, he produced a large magician's feather bouquet and tossed it out into the audience. Rita, a scrawny wisp of an eighteen-year-old girl at the time, then put 98% of this nation's NFL wide receivers to shame when she vaulted forward a good twenty feet and snatched the fake flowers in mid-air.

A year later, Rita wasn't just getting flowers from Kurt Vonnegut: She was proposing marriage to him. No, really.

It was after she, our friend Bob Hardie, and I saw Vonnegut speak in Olympia, Washington. Once the lecture ended, we were just about to leave the hall when we stumbled across a post-lecture reception for the man. A stern-looking, moustached educator in a tweed jacket guarded the reception room entrance from outsiders. The three of us, Vonnegut novels in hand, conspired on how we could get in.

After a few minutes Moustache Man left his post--presumably to use the nearby facilities--and Bob took the bull by the horns. "C'mon. Let's go," Bob whispered, grabbing Rita and I and pulling us along. Behind our good buddy's baby face and utterly guileless eyes (not for nothing was Bob nicknamed E.T.) lurked the tenacious instincts of a pitbull.

We were nearly through the door when another stern-faced educator--this one a mousy woman in a floral-print yuppie dress--stopped us. "Do you have invitations? You can't come in without an invitation."

Without missing a beat, Bob looked into the woman's eyes and said, "Well, the man with the moustache said we could come in." Bob was in full E.T. mode by this time, a perfect look of dewy-eyed innocence on his countenance. Floral Print Dress Lady suddenly smiled sympathetically and said, "Oh, OK. Mr. Vonnegut likes talking to college students, anyway."

Bob, Rita and I walked past the small cluster of cocktail-and-canape-freeloading figures in front of the doorway and made our way to the eastern corner of the room. Kurt Vonnegut stood there, embroiled in a conversation with a persistent woman who was bristling at the author's assessment that Glasnost was failing (history proved him right, of course). Despite towering over the woman physically he maintained his patience, even as she got more and more strident.

Bob and I meekly handed Kurt Vonnegut each of our respective books, and Vonnegut nodded politely in our direction, signing the tomes while still debating the pro-Glasnost Woman. Then Rita walked up, pen and copy of Cat's Cradle at the ready. The Point-Counterpoint had just reached a lull when my future wife looked up at the author of Slaughterhouse Five and sighed, "Will you marry me?"

Kurt Vonnegut chuckled, a short blast of air that almost sounded like a smoker's cough except that he smiled as it emerged. He looked at her with a twinkle and replied, "I think I'm a bit old for you." Rita floated out of the room with stars in her eyes.

As I write this, that dusty bouquet of fake flowers from the first Vonnegut lecture sits in a vase in our library room, next to a snapshot that we took of him that night. Two shelves down reside both of our autographed books from the second lecture. And occupying our combined grey matter: Kurt Vonnegut's collected works, along with a lot of fond memories.

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