Monday, July 21, 2014

Rekindling the spirit of Vonnegut

February 19. 2013 4:41PM
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True story: I once made Kurt Vonnegut laugh by telling him a joke. It wasn't an original or especially noteworthy joke. It was a riddle prompted by what, in 2001, was one of the New York Mets' more-error-ridden-than-usual losing streaks.

What, I asked him (and, to repeat, this was some time ago), do Michael Jackson and this year's Mets have in common? Beat, beat, then the answer: They all wear one glove for no explicable reason.

It was as if I'd been given a grand gift by this melancholy connoisseur of slapstick, this wary collector of shaggy-dog stories. Though I met him only a couple times, I remember his laugh—as do many others—as a disarming display of interactive generosity, an outward and visible sign of an inward and accommodating grace.

Too bad you won't actually hear that laugh bursting through Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. But you will find yourself laughing at much of its content. You also will find abundant evidence of its author's grace and generosity toward others; in particular, victims of disease, financial hardship, neglect and censorship.

Who could blame anyone for being a lifelong pessimist ever after? Yet for Vonnegut, as it has been for generations of artists, writing offered the best of all possible releases from dread, however much he may have despaired through the 1950s and early 1960s that he could feed and raise a growing family solely on the slick-magazine market. At one point, he sells Saabs on Cape Cod; at another, he's hoping to sell somebody an idea for a children's board game. All the while, he tries, as he puts it in a letter to his agent, to bring my mediocrity before the public. At the depths of his wilderness years, he's so discouraged that even this habitual quipster complains, When you get right down to it, wit isn't any help anywhere.

Still he persevered. And found enough satisfaction from the writing trade to pass along what he learned to students at the University of Iowa's fabled writers' workshop. In one class assignment, he urges his students to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. No misanthropes worth their bile could write that with a straight face.

He spread comfort out to many precincts: to his children and first wife, in deeply touching letters, accounting for his complicity in the breakup of his marriage; to librarians, teachers and translators in America and abroad facing censure or worse from censors, school boards and other official spoilsports; to other writers trapped in their own wildernesses.

However gloomy Kurt Vonnegut could be, he left behind this book, one of his very best, that you could use to keep your own hopes kindled and your insides warm.

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