INDIANA is a “fly-over" state — you pass by if you can — and Indianapolis, the capital, also known as Naptown and India-NO-polis, lies somewhere between a cornfield and the bean belt. So says my mostly peace-loving neighbour here in America.
Indianapolis is also the hometown of the writer Kurt Vonnegut, a place he always referred to with admiration and affection. “We Hoosiers got to stick together." Even though the Hoosiers, as Indiana residents call themselves, were sometimes a bit embarrassed by their famous writer. Mike Pence and his axe-and-Bible throwers, my neighbour grumbles again.
Breakfast of Champions
The Kurt Vonnegut Library and Museum (KVLM) opened in Indianapolis in 2011, and I start my day with a Breakfast of Champions in its Bokonon Lounge — a wholesome espresso martini. Bokonon is the name of the religion Vonnegut creates in Cat’s Cradle (1963). It was the first of his books that I read and now reread after watching the film Oppenheimer.
In early family photos in the reading room, he is the blond, curly-headed boy, the youngest of three children, always the joker. Aside from his mother's depression, which he describes as “as corrosive as hydrofluoric acid" working through the family, Vonnegut depicts his childhood as happy. His mother commits suicide just before he is sent to Europe as a soldier. After that, he says, suicide always stays with you as the first logical solution to all your problems. Throughout his life he struggles with severe depression and outbursts of anger, which he recounts in one text after another, “because she had left me a legacy of suicide".
But his greatest loss is the death of his sister, Alice. In a freakish twist of fate, she and her husband die within two days of each other. Kurt and his wife, Jane, adopt their three sons. Their family of five has grown to eight, and they struggle financially. While he sells short stories to magazines, he is, among other things, a reporter, teacher, copywriter and car salesman.
His first books are published as pulp fiction, although Player Piano (1952) and Sirens of Titan (1959) are much more than their “sci-fi sleaze" covers imply. However, it was with Mother Night (1961) and Cat’s Cradle (1963) that he built a cult following broader than just science fiction readers.
In the KVML, I am physically as close to Vonnegut as I can be — the clarinet he played in high school, his reading glasses with a frame like my dad's, his blue Smith Corona 2200 typewriter, his last pack of Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes, a Purple Heart medal and a Luftwaffe sabre.
In a replica of his workspace, you can sit like Kurt: uncomfortably. The table is too low, and the chair slopes so that he had to lean forward to type, his posture resembling a flamingo on a nest that's too small.
The Dresden book
He works on the Dresden book for 23 years. Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), is a prisoner of war in Dresden. During an air raid, he and other prisoners hide in the underground coolers of Schlachthof-fünf, the slaughterhouse. Afterwards, they have to search for bodies under piles of hot bricks and smoke from a devastated city, “a terribly elaborate Easter egg hunt".
Then Billy becomes “unstuck in time" and moves forwards and backwards through time involuntarily and unexpectedly. Like television channels changing. There are also extraterrestrial beings from Tralfamadore, who explain the concept of time to Billy. Everything has already happened and everything will happen again. There is nothing you can do about it. “So it goes." A phrase Vonnegut repeats relentlessly until you feel the fatalism and powerlessness of it. “So-it-goes."
Like Slaughterhouse-Five, all of Vonnegut's texts are primarily autobiographical, albeit encoded in different genres. Of course, Billy is not actually travelling through time. He experiences psychotic episodes while trying to process his war trauma (and Vonnegut's). What would you call it? Historically humorous science fiction? Satirical sci-fi memoir?
Wealth, fame and the great ka-boom
Slaughterhouse-Five immediately becomes a bestseller. Vonnegut and his anti-hero Billy become heroes of a generation of hippie pacifists who are fed up with the senseless brutality of the Vietnam War. His performances and speeches become legendary — hey, it's the Vonnegut Road Show, his opinions as strong and unfiltered as the Pall Malls he chain-smokes.
Even more important than fame and money for him is the literary recognition Slaughterhouse-Five receives. He was often self-conscious about his Hoosier accent, his simple writing style and his limited literary background.
His daughter considers Slaughterhouse-Five as the explosion that tore their family apart. Vonnegut becomes bored, derogatory and venomous towards his wife, openly engaging in love affairs with other women. “I get drunk, and I drive my wife away with a breath like mustard gas and roses." He mostly stays in Manhattan, where he's a mini-celeb, and later marries Jill Krementz.
During this time, the KVLM is quieter. His children, who are now involved with the museum, don't get along with Jill. It's an unhappy marriage and Vonnegut later refers to her as “hardwired to the bowels of hell".
Breakfast of Champions (1973) is also a bestseller, but reviews tear the book apart. The same happens with his next and subsequent books. And okay, I didn't end up reading all his books as I had initially set out to. Slapstick (1976), which I really want to like because he dedicates it to his beloved sister, Alice; Deadeye Dick (1982); and a few others end up in a dusty pile. Shazzbutter and snarfs, wampeters and granfalloons, chick-a-dee-dee-dee and then that darn ting-a-ling one too many times.
You know, something happens in a person's middle years; his later writing becomes too noisy for me. Too many ironic twists and word games, too many characters, too busy, too bustling. As if he's trying too hard.
Money is rolling in but reviews remain poor. He performs less, makes a few terribly inappropriate jokes that he inappropriately laughs at, and feels bitter about bad reviews. “Critics couldn't tolerate science mixed with literature," he grumbles. But mostly, he is lonely. At 65, alone in Manhattan and kicked out by Jill, he tries to commit suicide.
One last irony
Although our reading relationship occasionally hits a speed wobble, Kurt and I patch things up again with Galápagos (1985) and A Man Without a Country (2005), which even the New York Times was excited about. He finally receives recognition from his hometown when Indianapolis declares 2007 “The Year of Vonnegut". But his commemorative year ends before it even begins in a final piece of irony.
His daughter tells how distant he was as a father. He was remote, with a cantankerous mood. Sometimes, she says, she was jealous when he played with the family dog rather than them. Fast forward (come on Billy!) to April 2007, Indianapolis's Year of Vonnegut, and in Manhattan, Kurt takes his beloved dog Flour, a lively Maltese poodle, for a walk. Flour weaves between his feet and Vonnegut falls headfirst, tripping over her leash. He is unconscious and dies shortly afterwards from brain injuries. His speech for his commemorative year is read by his son.
To be funny is a good thing to do with a life, Kurt said, and that's how he wanted to be remembered.
But when he draws that Pall Mall into a little ember in the dark, doubled over with his emphysema wheeze that makes his eyes water, you know it was much more than a joke.
The documentary, Unstuck in Time, by Robert Weide, on Hulu and Prime Video.
♦ VWB ♦
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