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R.I.P., Kilgore Trout

The NYT has a nice retrospective about Kurt Vonnegut, who died yesterday. You have to register to read the piece.

I'd quibble with the Times' comparison to Mark Twain, though. Vonnegut was as keen a critic of the human race as Twain was. But Twain forced you to look at the ugliness, relentlessly. When Twain's characters tried escape, they usually landed back where they started. Like Jim in "Huck Finn," who's free and has $40 at the end of the book, but you know that's not going to going to change things much for him, people being what they are.

Vonnegut, by contrast, created science fiction escapes for his characters, like the planet Tralfamadore where Billy Pilgrim is transported at the end of "Slaughterhouse-Five." Billy Pilgrim is as much a prisoner on Tralfamadore as he was in Dresden. But the prison is nicer. He gets to keep his dog and has a nice roommate in Montana Wildhack.

Most of Vonnegut's sci-fi havens were thinly disguised metaphors for death. In "Slapstick," a character does die and ends up in a place the dead call The Turkey Farm, an endlessly boring waiting room, where people mill around a single telephone contraption hoping to connect with the people they left in life.

There is a wistfulness in Vonnegut's hopelessness, a wish that things might be better--a wistfulness Twain utterly lacks, and would probaby have ridiculed.

Although I hadn't read Vonnegut for decades, reading about his death made me recall the summer before college my friend Holly and I read "Breakfast of Champions" together, a book that got us through that last summer of adolescence.

Holly and I were angry about a lot of things--the complacency of our parents, the war, men, politics, organized religion--with that know-it-all superiority adolescents have. We were convinced that the Midland City of "B of C" was based on the actual town we were living in right then. There were too many similarities to be coincidences. And a famous writer knew all about it and agreed with us! The book provided a kind of Tralfamadorian escape valve that summer. We even discussed writing a letter to Vonnegut in hopes he would confirm our suspicions. But we never did.

And now we'll never know for sure.

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The wicked comic genius of the man was unique, so I'm not sure about comparisons. Even his simple ilustrations were hilarious."Slaughter House 5" is as vital today as it was originally. Not only for the famous "so it goes" but for the first word of the book:"Listen"

The Times obituary references a Vonnegut poem called "Requiem", which has these closing lines:When the last living thinghas died on account of us,how poetical it would beif Earth could say,in a voice floating upperhapsfrom the floorof the Grand Canyon,"It is done."People did not like it here.To read this is to imagine Vonnegut as an astronaut viewing the Earth from space and mourning man's final expulsion from this blue paradise.

There's a brokenheartedness about that poem Antonio cites and it's unanswer question, "Why didn't people like it here? It was so nice."And the only way you can get your heart broken is to have one.In a long autobiographical preamble to "Slapstick," he tells about going to visit his dying sister. She tries to cheer him up and when he gets ready to leave she tells him not to come back. It is heartbreaking because he realizes she is both showing love for him and acknowledging his inability to handle his grief.Later, in describing his break-up with his wife, he Vonnegut says he doesn't believe in love, just "common decency." Which sounds an awful lot like the love that is not particular. Caritas.I was struck by Vonnegut's own epitaph for himself, an odd one for a man who was a religious skeptic, cynic and tried to commit suicide:If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.

"One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being."-- May Sarton