Just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country this evening (as close to a memoir as we’ll get from Vonnegut).
The book came out in 2005; I just became aware of it a couple of months ago (thanks to Dave at Scripting News), and I finally got around to reading it.
It’s not a memoir – it’s just a collection of reminiscences and things that are on Vonnegut’s mind. I believe many – if not all – were published elsewhere and collected for this book (while Vonnegut was still alive – he died in 2007).
It’s a quick and refreshing read, full of candor, humor and – to a degree – pessimism. Vonnegut touches on his experiences in Dresden during WWII (he was a POW, and somehow survived the firebombing of that city), the state of current affairs and about how that whole world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket.
At the same time, Vonnegut is not just a grumpy old man. He admits he may have lost some of his sense of humor as the years have passed (he was 82 at publication), yet is adamant that there were no Good Old Days. Today is just our version of the whole hell/hand basket.
So he’s a realist.
The book is a breezy read – really more a series of vignettes than anything else – but packed with wonderful quotations, both funny and observationally spot-on. Make no mistake about it – this guy can write.
A couple of examples, the first one funny, the second disturbingly accurate:
I am one of America’s Great Lakes people, her freshwater people, not an oceanic but a continental people. Whenever I swim in the ocean, I feel as though I am swimming in chicken soup.
There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don’t know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president. This was true even in high school. Only clearly disturbed people ran for class president.
The latter quotation refers to the 2nd President Bush (about whom Vonnegut writes about in a very unflattering manner), but it’s something I’ve wondered about lately, especially in our now 24-hour news cycle, where the beast needs continual feeding: Why would someone put themselves and their families through all this to be Representative/Senator/President? It’s almost pathological. What does this say about our candidates?
Vonnegut is our era’s Mark Twain; I don’t know who is left to fill in this blank: A humanist, a humorist and an astute observer of the human condition. E.B. White – like Vonnegut – was a Cornell University product who wrote and observed well, but he’s gone, too. And his humor was more New Yorker than Vonnegut’s sometimes profane and matter-of-fact approach.
Some might invoke names such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, saying the medium has moved. This, to a degree, is true, but Stewart and Colbert are more heirs to Will Rogers than Twain. More topical, more hyperbole. Twain and Vonnegut often understated matters, and shared their own feelings instead of just echoing the zeitgeist. I’m not knocking the one approach vs. the other; just noting they are different.
We need voices like Vonnegut to help keep us grounded, to show us that the things we are taking for granted (“trust the government”) might not be true and so on.
I’ve liked Vonnegut ever since devouring – in one night – Slaughterhouse Five.
I’m not the guy who has read all of Vonnegut’s books – and some I’ve read haven’t done much for me.
But I always liked his (written) voice, and especially liked his non-fiction efforts, including interviews and so on. He seems so grounded. I think that’s what separates Vonnegut/Twain from the politicians: The politicians keep trying to convince us they are something they might not be (whatever it takes to get [re-]elected); Vonnegut/Twain just are, and are trying to get you to smile, to laugh and to think – not to vote.
That’s the Vonnegut Way.