Listen: I’ve been on a little Vonnegut kick lately, and it’s been a happy time.
I just reread Breakfast of Champions, and I’m halfway into Cat’s Cradle, after tearing through this one, published posthumously:
While I’ve got you — as my father would say — take a gander at this photograph from the back of that book.
Wonderful, right? He was a true American Original.
I don’t know how Mr. Vonnegut is regarded in the ivory towers these days, though I do know there’s a large number of loyal fans that will always read and adore him. When he connects with a reader, it comes with a jolt. I’ve gotten my oldest boy to read a couple. Maybe more in the future. He can’t fend me off forever.
My sister Jean, an avid reader, read all of Brautigan’s books and I borrowed them from her. Trout Fishing In America! The Springhill Mine Disaster! Revenge of the Lawn! The Abortion! It’s been years since I recalled those titles. Reading Brautigan’s breezy style possibly set my writing back ten years, or turned me into a writer, I can’t decide which. Maybe it was a combo offer: Turned me into a seriously flawed writer — but a writer nonetheless! And if that’s what’s in the case, Howie, I’ll take that deal.
There was something undeniably cool about the experience of reading Vonnegut and Brautigan, something authentic and accessible and fun. Dad wasn’t reading those guys, that’s for sure (come to think of it, Dad wasn’t reading at all — but that’s a problem for another day). Vonnegut and Brautigan, and why not, let’s throw in the Beat Writers before them, had attitude, a combination of cynicism and idealism, as opposed to today’s more common brand of empty cynicism, minus the hope. Their ideology seemed to matter a lot more than semicolons. They took literature, blew off the dust, and passed it along to me, a lousy teenager. Reading those fast, easy books gave me the idea that maybe I could do it. Write a poem or a short-short story. Take a look around and maybe assess things a little.
By the way, I looked like this around that time, 7th-8th grade:
Here’s me and my brother John, probably five years later (and yes, I’m wearing a macrame belt):
I think what’s happening between Vonnegut and me is that I’m currently writing a new book for older readers, a notch above Bystander. So I’m remembering being 15, 16 years old. The things we did. How it felt. And somehow Vonnegut so perfectly captures those essential youthful feelings. Not that there was intentionality to my selection. I didn’t go to him as a conjurer. I just stumbled upon old Kurt in a couple of bookstores and, for the first time in 30 years, thought, Now feels right.
Part of it is the counter-culture current that runs through everything both men wrote. Their freedom, independence, iconoclastic proclivities. All I can say is: I totally identify with that, growing up in suburbia at the time I did, with a brother off in Vietnam, another constantly smoking a pipe in the back bedroom while banging away on a typewriter, listening to Dylan and trying to write a book on James Joyce, a time of Nixon and Watergate, then Belushi and Radner on “Saturday Night Live” exposing our absurdities . . .
I’m rambling, forgive me. Usually I try to have something coherent to say.
Oh, yes, I remember why I began this entry in the first place! Here’s what Kurt Vonnegut wrote about semicolons in Armageddon In Retrospect:
My advice to writers just starting out? Don’t use semicolons! They are transvestite hermaphrodites, representing exactly nothing. All they do is suggest you might have gone to college.