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I'm in Vonnegut's cult

By COLETTE BANCROFT
Published April 15, 2007


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Most of the tributes written about Kurt Vonnegut since he died Wednesday night have called him a cult writer.

Some cult. Vonnegut's books have enjoyed a solid four decades of readership and positions on both Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century list and the American Library Association's Most Banned Books list always a reliable sign of independent thinking. The man himself was a cultural icon, his craggy looks and fiery politics as familiar as his books.

The "cult" moniker smells a bit like a brushoff, a polite way of barring him from the grownups' table of literary lionhood.

That may have to do with when and how he first made his bones as a novelist: among the counterculture of the 1960s and '70s. His savagely satirical, tenderhearted novels first became bestsellers because of baby boomers, who loved them so much that Vonnegut became the voice of a generation not his own (he was raising his own boomers in the 1960s).

Here's how popular he was then: As an undergraduate at the University of South Florida in the early 1970s, I was assigned to read Slaughterhouse-Five in five courses, three English, one anthropology and one American history.

But three or four generations later, while other literary darlings of the '60s have faded into obscurity or ascended to graybeard status, Vonnegut is still read avidly in high schools and colleges, cited by much younger writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Jess Walter and Jonathan Lethem as a major influence.

Although in the prologue to Slaughterhouse-Five Vonnegut describes himself as "an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls, with his sons full grown" (he was, after all, 47 when the book was published in 1969), he has spoken always to the young.

The night after Vonnegut died, I read Slaughterhouse-Five again. Although I practically had it memorized by the time I graduated from USF, I hadn't reread it for close to 20 years.

I've done the same thing with other books I loved in my youth. Some of them turned out to be so callow or so badly written (or both) that I blushed.

Not Slaughterhouse-Five. In fact, it's better than I remembered: tighter, more subtle, more sophisticated. All right, so I longed briefly for a time when a bumper sticker that said "Reagan for President" was still a joke instead of history. But this is simply a great book.

Writing across genres and appropriating pop culture for the purposes of literature is so common now we hardly notice it, but Vonnegut is largely responsible for that.

Known early in his career as a science fiction writer - and therefore dismissed as not a real writer - Vonnegut leaped that snobby barrier in a single bound with Slaughterhouse-Five. It teems with Tralfamadorians and time travel, but the book was so rich in serious themes and resonant with the times that it couldn't be dismissed.

Slaughterhouse-Five also blithely crosses another boundary that has become one of the war zones of postmodern literature: the one between fiction and autobiography.

The book's central event, the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by British and American forces in 1945, was also a central event in the author's life. At age 22, Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden, just like his protagonist: "He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed. There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked." The firestorm left more than 25,000 people, most of them civilians, dead.

Vonnegut could have written a war memoir. But instead he wove his story around one of 20th century literature's most memorable characters: the perfectly named Billy Pilgrim, his surname reverberating with spiritual quest and American history, his first name a boy's name that calls up the image of a freckled tyke in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Hapless, harmless, most at home on a faraway planet, Billy can't even be called an antihero; he's much too passive to rebel. As a blowhard general says of him, "I could carve a better man out of a banana."

He's Adam, Candide, Huck Finn lighting out for a really distant territory, Ishmael come back to tell us the tale - not just of the war but of the utterly mundane life he returned to, and the utterly surprising things that happened anyway.

Creating that innocent, hopeful voice to speak the most bitter, unbearable truths is the genius of Slaughterhouse-Five, and it places Vonnegut in the first rank of American writers.

His hound-dog visage and halo of curls gave him a startling resemblance to his closest kindred spirit in American lit, Mark Twain. The resemblance was not superficial but bone deep. Both men embodied what F. Scott Fitzgerald once said about the first-rate intelligence: It can hold two opposing ideas at the same time and still function.

How well either Vonnegut or Twain functioned personally is a question for biographers, but they wrote like avenging angels who worked nights as standup comics. Those two opposing ideas? That the human race is an irredeemably wicked blight upon the face of the planet, and that, like Huck and Billy, we ought to love everyone anyway.

Vonnegut was a contrarian in almost every way: an antiwar writer with a Purple Heart, a man convinced humanity is doomed who raised seven children, a lifelong smoker who a few years back threatened to sue tobacco companies for reneging on their promise that their product would kill him early.

So no doubt he would get a kick out of that cult business. Somewhere in that fourth dimension the Tralfamadorians see, he's laughing over all those somber front-page stories about the cult novelist. If it's a cult, I'm proud to be a member.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com.

[Last modified April 14, 2007, 17:57:26]


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