“(Sylvia) looked from face to face for some flicker of understanding. There was none. The last face into which she peered was Norman Mushari’s. Mushari gave her a hideously inappropriate smile of greed and fornication.”
-Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
It’s hard to say whether the passage above makes sense by itself, but in full context it was probably responsible for making me a fan of Kurt Vonnegut. It perfectly embodied the kind of character Kurt drew so frequently: a kind-hearted, rational person, desperately trying to find reason in the world and getting lunacy in return. It was that same sentiment that led Will Ferrell’s over-the-top fashion designer Mugatu to exclaim, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” in frustration at a world that too often seems devoid of taste and common sense.
Kurt died last week at the age of 84, an ironically extended sentence considering how much he seemed to be fed up with the world at times. Several years ago, on a random NPR broadcast, a commentator opined that, “the ideal satirist keeps one eye on society’s foibles, and the other on its potential.” Vonnegut certainly knew about society’s foibles; I’m not sure how he felt about its potential.
Like most of his readers, I cut my first Vonnegut teeth on Slaughterhouse-Five, mostly because I remembered a disparaging comment about the book in the movie “Footloose”. I was inspired by his deconstruction of chronological narrative, and his sharp, witty voice. But it wasn’t until several years later when my friend Randy gave me his copy of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater that I really became a fan. Eliot Rosewater was Vonnegut’s Don Quixote, and probably an alter ego of his own as well.
From there, novels like Jailbird and Sirens of Titan became regular reading, referenced the same way Eric Clapton listens to Robert Johnson to make sure he’s staying true to his blues roots.
In spite of the fact that I consider myself a fan of Vonnegut’s writing—especially in the case of his witty storytelling—I have to be completely honest and say that my time with Kurt has often been conflicted. As I mentioned before, Vonnegut—while harboring a strong moral compass—often fell on the pessimistic side of the coin, if not the outright cynical side, and though I was frequently amused at his observations, I can’t say I always wholly agreed with them. I’ve often wondered how a left-leaning humanist and a right-leaning Mormon like myself would get along, but I think we have enough other attributes in common that we’d do just fine.
In some ways, he was almost the black comic flip-side of Ray Bradbury, another writer who shaped much of my adolescence. Bradbury, like Vonnegut, possesses a keen imagination, but is less inclined to humor and irony and more attuned to optimism and nostalgia. Calling them a literary peanut butter and jelly sandwich would probably be an insult to Kurt, Ray, and the literary community, but no other metaphor springs to mind at the moment.
Ultimately I have to file Vonnegut along with Bradbury, Woody Allen, Joseph Heller, and even my Far Side Anthology on my “stuff that makes me smile” shelf. When life stinks, and doesn’t at all resemble the “tragedy plus time equals comedy” formula Bob Hope so aptly coined, it’s nice to pull out one of these gems, and read about an Ice Cream Colored Suit, a South American Revolutionary-Cook, a Talking Cow, a Bombardier, or even a mild-mannered humanitarian lunatic. Within a few sentences, I usually realize that life may be a pain at times, but it’s still pretty funny.
And for that, Kurt, I thank you.