Updated: May 12, 2022
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
— Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Mother Night
One of the things I’ve noticed about getting older, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, is how much better one recalls books read in one’s callow youth than those read when the brain was starting to fill up with with family obligations, career exigencies, the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that the flesh is heir to.
As for books read in one’s dotage, fuhgeddaboutit. In fact, you probably have.
To illustrate the point with a beloved author, I can remember minute details in the Kurt Vonnegut Jr. novels that thrilled me in my teens: Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, Breakfast of Champions, Mother Night, Player Piano and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I can quote whole paragraphs with the effortless, smiling fastidiousness of a Mattea Roach on a Jeopardy! streak.
What, for example, is Poo-tee-weet?
The list is the order in which I encountered the works, by the way, not a publication chronology. My opinion on literary merit is neither here nor there, but I share the common perception that Vonnegut’s pièce-de-résistance is Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.
Published in 1969 after almost two decades of authorial obscurity, the semi-autobiographical novel — based partly on Vonnegut’s experience as a prisoner of war during the Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 — struck a perfect, I’d-like-to-buy-the-world-a-Coke chord in the anti-war, counterculture zeitgeist of the time and spent 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It peaked at No. 4, has appeared on Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English novels written in the last 100 years, and turned the then 46-year-old author into a rock-star sage and sought-after speaker at rallies and college commencement addresses throughout the U.S.
Rating his own novels in the delightful 1981 “autobiographical collage” titled Palm Sunday, Vonnegut gave himself A-pluses for two of his books published to that point: Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. That seems exactly right to me. They are the two finest novels, d’après moi (as if, once again, that means anything more than that I should take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut), in his oeuvre.
He gave Breakfast of Champions only a C, which seems harsh, and two subsequent novels — Slapstick and Jailbird — a D and an A, respectively. Hi ho.
Now the point I wanted to make here, assuming I haven’t taken a flying fuck at the mooooooooooon, is that I really have no idea whether Slapstick is a lousy novel and Jailbird a decent one. I barely recollect them.
I know I enjoyed both. Slapstick was a bizarre left brain/right brain allegory about extended families and Vonnegut’s relationship with his much-missed sister, Alice, who died of cancer in 1958, two days after her husband was killed in a train accident. Jailbird had to do with Watergate, McCarthyism and the American labour movement.
Other than that, crickets. Everything is nothing with a twist.
(Timeout for a digression, aka a doddering golden-ager’s prerogative: Though they had three children of their own and were hard-pressed for cash until the breakthrough of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut and his then wife took in and raised three of Alice’s young sons. Vonnegut said he once bawled out his sister for not doing more with her prodigious talents as a writer and sculptor; she retorted that having talent doesn’t carry an obligation to use it. This was startling news to young Kurt. Me, too.)
Anyway, this is where everything gets blurry and, well, listen:
Earl Fowler has come unstuck in time.
Copies of Slapstick (published in 1976) and Jailbird (1979) are on a shelf in our basement. So are Vonnegut novels Deadeye Dick (1982), Galápagos (1985), Bluebeard (1987), Hocus Pocus (1990) and Timequake (1997), alongside various short story collections, plays, nonfiction and even letters.
I read them all. I know I did. But I reread Bluebeard last week and found it funny and fabulous and completely surprising, because I had no idea of what was going to happen next. I’m currently rereading Galápagos and am so far less invested, but I’m only 55 pages in and once again have completely forgotten the plot and the characters (except for the redoubtable Kilgore Trout, of course).
I am especially looking forward to renewing acquaintances with Hocus Pocus, which the cover blurb from friend, neighbour and fellow WWII veteran Joseph Heller proclaims: “A TRIUMPH. IT IS PERHAPS HIS BEST.”
Here we go again.
Maybe this should make me happy. Maybe, as a curly-haired Hoosier once counselled a fresh crop of college grads, I should pause a moment, and then say out loud: “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
But who can remember what nice even was?
Though it cranks up the enjoyment by enhancing the suspense factor, my wife and I often find our inability to readily identify the murderer when watching repeat episodes of the TV crime dramas to which we’re addicted — Vera or Lewis or Endeavour or Midsomer Murders, among others — more chilling than the crime scenes.
I’d feel better it we didn’t sometimes have to wait until 15 minutes into a Netflix offering before realizing that we watched this movie, oh, in 2019. By that time, the popcorn bowl is usually empty.
Now, I’m told this isn’t unusual as one gets older. That’s as may be, but we all share a common fear. A slide into a thicker, more impenetrable cloud of amnesia and obliviousness would surely be among those Fates Worse than Death, the title of Vonnegut’s 1991 autobiographical collage.
I’ll have to read it again someday to make sure.
Vonnegut died in 2007 at age 84. If he were still around, he’d turn 100 in November — eight months after Jack Kerouac, who finished drinking himself to death a few months after the release of Slaughterhouse-Five.
(Not that I’m suggesting causal connection there. Talk about a negative review.)
In 2012’s And So it Goes, subtitled Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, Harper Lee biographer Charles J. Shields paints a picture of a sad, lonely and sometimes nasty cult hero — prone to fits of temper, as old farts with their memories and their Pall Malls sometimes are — who felt under-appreciated and neglected by the literary establishment, notwithstanding the adulation of millions of devotees.
During their final meeting, Shields relates, Vonnegut asked him to look up his name in a Webster’s Dictionary. It wasn’t there, but Kerouac’s was. If you try, you can also find the names of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Nelson Algren.
Was Vonnegut not taken seriously by influential literati because his early work, published in magazines and slim, 95-cent Dell paperbacks, was ghettoized as science fiction? That was certainly his take, and it’s hard to take issue with.
My take, to the best of my memory, is that he was a wonderfully wise satirist and a worthy successor to Mark Twain, about whom he wrote affectionately and with whom he was often compared. They even looked alike.
Listen: Know who else is turning 100 this year?
Slaughterhouse-Five protagonist Billy Pilgrim was born in 1922. At one point in 1965 (from a human perspective; the Tralfamadorians see things more holistically), Billy travels to the Pine Knoll old people’s home to visit his mother. Many of us have made similar pilgrimages. Many more are edging toward the other side of the bed ourselves:
She had caught pneumonia, and wasn’t expected to live. She did live, though, for years after that.
Her voice was nearly gone, so, in order to hear her, Billy had to put his ear right next to her papery lips. She evidently had something very important to say.
“How … ?” she began, and she stopped. She was too tired. She hoped that she wouldn’t have to say the rest of the sentence, that Billy would finish it for her.
But Billy had no idea what was on her mind. “How what, Mother?” he prompted.
She swallowed hard, shed some tears. Then she gathered energy from all over her ruined body, even from her toes and fingertips. At last she had accumulated enough to whisper this complete sentence:
“How did I get so old?”
So it goes.