Beneath Kurt Vonnegut's dark view of the world

by Kevin Horrigan

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

25 April 2007


Malachi Constant, the richest American, locked the Alice-in-Wonderland door behind him. He hung his dark glasses and false beard on the ivy of the wall. He passed the dog’s skeleton briskly, looking at his solar-powered watch as he did so. In seven minutes, a live mastiff named Kazak would materialize and roam the grounds.

“Kazak bites,” Mrs. Rumfoord had said in her invitation, “so please be punctual.”
—Kurt Vonnegut Jr., “The Sirens of Titan”

Since moving to St. Louis 30 years ago, I have owned five dogs. Two of them were named Kazak, after Winston Niles Rumfoord’s chrono-synclastically infundibulated mastiff, Kazak.

Lord help me, I was a Vonnegut freak.

This was in the days before e-mail, so I would write actual letters full of Vonnegutian references to my friend Bill Tammeus in Kansas City; I signed them “Kilgore Trout,” who is a recurring character in Vonnegut’s novels. I had a rubber stamp made for the return address, describing me as “Vice President in Charge of Volcanoes,” a reference from Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle.”

Tammeus would write back using the name “Dwayne Hoover,” a deranged Pontiac dealer who is the hero of Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.” We preferred using stationery we stole from Holiday Inns, which we sought out when we traveled because Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover preferred Holiday Inns.

Our letters were written in bad imitations of Vonnegut’s truncated, sardonic style, full of allusions to “The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent,” the planet Tralfamadore, “chrono-synclastic infundibula” (a dimension where truths merge), space messengers who looked liked toilet plungers and all the rest.

I told a colleague about this the other day. He said, “I bet that all seems pretty precious nowadays,” and he was right. But we were young newspaper reporters then, trying to figure out life and literature, and Vonnegut seemed to have done the heavy lifting for us.

Luckily for both of us, these letters do not survive, and, unlike Karl Rove, we didn’t even have to take the additional step of deleting them from the e-mail server. As Paul says in Corinthians, a man lays aside the things of his youth, and we both went on to other things. Tammeus retired not long ago as a columnist for the Kansas City Star. I found steady employment.

Vonnegut, alas, died on April 11, a development he’d spent most of his life dreading. Since then I’ve been rereading my tattered Vonnegut collection and deciding I was nuts to lay it aside.

For all of his darkness and cynicism, his nihilism and flippancy, his preoccupation with death, Vonnegut lived to be 84 and appeared to be enjoying himself.

To a greater or lesser degree, his books all deal with life’s fundamental question: What is the purpose of all of this? Usually, he was angrily struck only by the absurdity of it all. In “The Sirens of Titan,” he suggested that the entire point of human existence was to deliver a spare part about the size of a bottle opener to a Trafamadorian space traveler named Salo.

In “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” he gave us Eliot Rosewater, the heir to a great fortune who decides that the selflessness of volunteer firemen is the key to life’s purpose. Eliot then conspires to give his money away, which naturally makes his father think he’s crazy, but also inspires one woman to ask him to baptize her babies.

“Hello, babies,” Eliot says. “Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies “`God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

Beneath his dark view of the world was a persistent, almost contradictory, faith in mankind’s ability to triumph over life’s craziness. He was haunted by his mother’s mental illness and suicide and by his own experiences in World War II.

Captured by the Germans and put to work on a crew in a Dresden meat-cutting plant, he survived the Allied firebombing of the city in February 1945. Twenty-four years later, he published his masterpiece, “Slaughterhouse-5, or The Children’s Crusade.” It was 1969, and another war was raging, so “Slaughterhouse-5,” with its time travel and space travel and Tralfamadorian zoos, somehow was read as a parable of Vietnam.

My fling with Vonnegut began when I was about the same age he was when he was hiding in that cellar during the Dresden firebombing. I had no clue then what it took to survive that, come out whole and retain even a shred of belief in human kindness. Literature, like youth, may be wasted on the young.

“Laughter and tears,” Vonnegut said once, “are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”


Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Readers may write to him at khorrigan AT post-dispatch.com.

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