Some people are so much a part of the earthly landscape that I seem to take it for granted they’ll always be around. Johnny Cash was one of those people. Kurt Vonnegut is another. Without him on it, the planet feels a little bit lonelier.
Fortunately, great artists bestow great gifts: Vonnegut leaves us an invented universe populated with memorably named characters like Kilgore Trout and Billy Pilgrim, who speak made-up words and phrases that found their way into everyday conversation—and, in some cases, into American dictionaries. Carass. Ice Nine. Wampeters. Granfalloons. So it goes, a phrase that originated in Slaughterhouse Five and was later repeated endlessly in Breakfast of Champions, became a slogan for anti-Vietnam War protestors in the 1960s.
Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s best known book; it was made into a fairly well done film. My favorite Vonnegut books are Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater—but I read them so long ago that only bits and pieces are still floating in my mental database. On the other hand, I read Welcome To The Monkey House, the title story of his first collection, so many times it’s still vivid and intact. Monkey House is particularly relevant today, when kids are being taught sex will kill them. I’ll be reading it again this weekend.
Like baseball’s Roger Clemens, who issues annual announcements of impending retirement, Vonnegut threatened, in later books, to make each one his last. Driven like many writers by interior forces, he always came back. In one such announcement he compared writing to his service in the Army, pleading, “I’ve written books. Lots of them. Please, I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do. Can I go home now?”
Kurt Vonnegut went home yesterday, April 12th, 2007.
For a complete list of Vonnegut’s works and more biographical information, see his entry in Wikipedia.