Friday, April 20, 2007

So it goes.

I was saddened but not surprised to learn of Kurt Vonnegut's death last week. I had been sure he would die back in 2000 when he suffered smoke inhalation from his apartment catching fire, but what's a little smoke after a lifetime of cigarettes? Still, he had been on my "death watch" list since that incident and I had been dreading the news of his death for years.

I was introduced to Kurt Vonnegut in my early teens in the early 1970s. My mother brought a copy of Cat's Cradle on one of our summer lake vacations to Waupaca, Wisconsin, and she thought I would enjoy it. I did. And I shared it with my friend John Shepherd. Before long, we had each read all of Mr. Vonnegut's fiction. His stories validated our adolescent discovery that life was absurd and that nobody really knew what was going on. We especially enjoyed Slaughterhouse-Five and its premise that Billy Pilgrim had become unstuck in time. As I have gotten older, that idea has come back to me frequently as random memories of my life leap to mind at odd moments for no apparent reason. Of course, I only live in moments that have already occurred, not also in the future as Billy Pilgrim did. "So it goes."

The many excellent short stories in Welcome to the Monkey House were a revelation for John and me. We laughed out loud at several of them and were deeply moved by others. I still reference the equality-at-any-cost idea behind "Harrison Bergeron"; get misty thinking of the young lovers in "Long Walk to Forever"; and wonder if my dog is as smart as "Thomas Edison's Shaggy Dog".

In 1976, while attending the University of Iowa, I had the great good fortune to see Kurt Vonnegut speak at McBride Auditorium. He spoke of his work with the university's Writers' Workshop and answered questions from the audience, but what I remember most clearly was his reading of the first chapter of his work-in-progress, Jailbird. When he came to the description of the homeless woman with old love letters stuffed in her shoes and revealed that the letters were from the story's narrator, Walter Starbuck, there was an audible gasp in the auditorium, followed by a raucous standing ovation. Such was the power of Kurt Vonnegut as a storyteller.

To use the greeting of Billy Pilgrim's Tralfamadorian abductors: Mr. Vonnegut, hello. Good-bye. Hello.

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