God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut
Mother Night on the Banks of the Big Tennessee
by Don Williams
Picture Kurt Vonnegut, Jr… Dead.
For the time being at least. Not that he's likely to rise again unless the universe starts running backwards, like a run amok player piano. But time being what time is, and Vonnegut being who Vonnegut… is, yes, it could happen--at least in his novels, which bounce around time like a pogo rider on a checkered kitchen floor stretching to infinity.
Maybe his checking out on 4/11/7 at age 84 is a way of celebrating lucky deliverance from times too much like those in a favored book--1984, by George Orwell--or from a body too bothered by medicinal hocus pocus. Either way, if Vonnegut and Faulkner are right to say the past is always with us, then young Vonnegut lives.
See the unkempt hair, moustache, wry grin lending a huggable quality to the rationalist humanist even as he ponders frigid truths. See the young reporter-turned-adman stringing words to push product down the pipeline while honing novels in the 1950s. Watch him quarrel with book marketers who classify Sirens of Titan as sci-fi, limiting his exposure to a broader audience, if only for a while.
Hear the clatter of his keys as he turns crazy notions into print--like Ice-Nine, an element from Vonnegut's imagination. Careful. One vial of that doomsday weapon would crystallize all the water on the planet if emptied into, say, the Tennessee River. Something like that happens at the end of Cat's Cradle—the title's derived from an old parlor game performed with simple string--leaving our protagonist eternally giving the finger to a frozen universe.
Maybe young Vonnegut dreams up such images in 1942 as he walks the banks of the Big Tennessee while attending UT. Maybe inklings of waterways' unity flow into one another like a single entity, like time itself. Maybe some dawning knowledge of the purposes our government was feverishly putting Oak Ridge to influence his dark vision. Maybe worship of Big Orange sports heroes on those same banks turn the mechanical engineering student against tribal loyalty for all time.
Such attitudes make Slaughterhouse Five his most controversial novel. It's about a man who goes space and time hopping through a universe shattered at Dresden, Germany in 1945. Vonnegut, a downed pilot, is a prisoner of war there, working in a factory making vitamins for pregnant women, when Brits carpet-bomb that city, a renowned center of culture, followed by the same from America, even after the outcome of the war is clear. Maybe the specter of total war violence him out of his mind and body and time's matrix, until Russian soldiers rescue him. He returns to Dresden years later, if only in imagination.
Perhaps he recalls how that war lends a sort of psychic immunity to Americans dropping record-breaking ordnance on Vietnam and Cambodia in the sixties and seventies. Perhaps as an old man approaching death in the 21st century, he sees how such bombings continue to immunize Americans against revulsion to Shock and Awe visited on Iraq.
Just before bouncing out of his corporeal life, maybe he hears death cries of millions in some future war on Iran. Hmm, is that a mushroom cloud exploding there, courtesy of good Christians in Los Alamos and Oak Ridge?
Did I mention Vonnegut is an atheist? That he likes Jesus quite a lot anyhow? Especially the Sermon on the Mount? That he rescues his son from insanity and self-medication in the 1970s, nurtures him to wellness with tender love and affection? That he thinks we all could use just a tad more socialism, a tad less desperate money-grubbing? And that war's a terrible idea for people on a finite world grown clever at making doomsday bombs? That he says, "We're addicted to oil" years before the Shrub discovers the value of paying lip service to reality from time to time? That he knows time is relative?
So it goes.
Vonnegut believes our greatest heroes are altruistic volunteer firefighters and not, say, warriors like Pat Tillman or Jessica Lynch, who the Bush lie machine sought to foist off on us as real action heroes. Think what a younger Vonnegut could do with such material. The economy he'd bring to showing soldiers in camouflage running out of a hospital while pretending to rescue Lynch. Imagine how the writer might pogo his readers across time's checkered kitchen floor to show Jessica riding a tire-swing at age 8, all freckles and curls, swinging round a West Virginia white oak tree, dreaming of glory. How he'd cut back to show an Iraqi surgeon picking up a phone to call Americans and say, "We've dressed the wounds of one Jessica Lynch. She's leddy to check out now."
Watch Vonnegut bounce her next to boot camp, then across time to Pentagon PR flacks as they tailor the Jessica Lynch legend. Watch how they position cameras to record Americans rushing the hospital, guns drawn. Vonnegut might sum up the darkly humorous hero scam as he sums up so much of the world's crap in Cat's Cradle, with five little words:
"No cat. No cat's cradle."
No Vonnegut? Time forbid. Earlier in the 21st century I miss an opportunity to meet him when he speaks at UT. A friend tells me of his charm and wit, how he'd recently survived a house fire. Does his admiration of firefighters foreshadow this event, somehow, by fifty years, or is the reverse true?
Bouncing around my own life's hologram it's hard to imagine it without Vonnegut. See me in the back of Miss Pearsall's chemistry class reading God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, looking into my own bigotry and closed-mindedness thanks to Vonnegut's clarifying x-ray vision. I'm 15. I'll devour four more Vonnegut books before I'm 16, and through all the years I'll see how Vonnegut got so much right. I'll thank him for the warnings and foreshadows of heartbreak and wisdom to come. I thank him tomorrow. I thank him yesterday. I thank him now.
God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.
With love and loss and sad admiration.
So he goes.
Copyright © 2007 by Don Williams, All Rights Reserved
Don Williams is a widely published columnist, free-lance writer, and the founding editor and publisher of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of literary writings. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Michigan Journalism Fellowship, a Golden Presscard Award and the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize. As a reporter for the Knoxville News-Sentinel, he was five times writer of the month in the Scripps Howard newspaper chain and twice runner-up for Writer of the Year. He is finishing a novel set in his native Tennessee and Iraq. His book of selected journalism, “Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes, the Best Writings About People” by Don Williams has sold out. For more information, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit the NMW website at www.NewMillenniumWritings.com.
Note to Don, e-mail me if posting this is a problem, Den.