When I was a student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, there were a handful of options for buying books in town. One was a midsized shop called Rainbow Books and Records, located amid the downtown’s Main Street bustle. I have few memories of actually buying anything there (though I did steal, for no good reason, a used Cypress Hill CD from the store; hopefully the crime’s statute of limitations has run out). There was a mediocre campus bookstore from which I bought a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland that I read eight or nine pages of. The best, by a wide margin, was the airy, endless Bookateria, where I spent afternoons searching for titles by Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, Robert Pirsig, and whatever else might bolster my developing self-image as a chin-stroking bongside intellectual. Twenty years on, The Bookateria is still there — or so says the internet — and just thinking of it puts me there, my Birkenstocks (I was looking for Tom Robbins, remember) soft on its creaking hardwood floors.
There was also a fourth option, and I have no idea what it was called. In a wide alley off of Main Street, a miniscule bookstore existed for an equally miniscule length of time. Its lifespan, as I recall, was just a few months, but it might have been less than that. It was heavily curated, blue of carpet, and run by a prim white-haired woman with a courteous smile. Its metal shelves were home to midcentury cookbooks and color-plate nature guides, their prices written, almost apologetically, in the corners of their inside covers. The shop, so small and quiet — save for the waft of classical music — lent it the feeling of the quarters of a bibliophilic monk. Entering the store always reminded me that I was wearing dirty track pants and an old Phillies cap.
On one of my few trips there — I could feel the owner’s eyes, as if my CD-lifting reputation had preceded me — I came across a row of hardbacked, dark-blue novels. Their jackets were gone, and they stood together, naked, as if huddling against danger. Each spine bore the stamped name of the books’ author — Kurt Vonnegut– and, in smaller type, the title. I’d heard of Vonnegut, and vaguely knew that I should read him. I picked up Breakfast of Champions, read a few lines (“I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”), and felt a surge in my chest. I paid the owner the lightly-penciled price of five dollars plus tax, waited for her pointlessly elaborate receipt, said thanks, and tore the fuck out of there. I had to read this book.
Breakfast of Champions felt, like a handful of other works — The Catcher in the Rye, of course, and later T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and the stories of George Saunders — wholly new to me, modes of communication that kicked through my mind’s thin walls. I’d never — and still have never — read anything like it. I suppose that any Vonnegut book would have had this effect, so distinctive is his style — that of a brilliant depressive, the vitality of his talent battling his downbeat vision — but Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s loosest book, full of drawings and nonsense lines (“Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm. I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm.”) that gain menace as they mount. It seemed somehow right for this to be my first, the best route into his world.
Breakfast of Champions isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel, but it smacked me in the head with more force than any of his others — and possibly more than any other book I’ve read. I haven’t read it since that day in 1998, and I have only a dim memory of what it was about — something about a used-car salesman; something about cows. But that initial excitement has stuck; when I picked it up before writing this piece, something tightened in my throat. It was an artifact that had shoved me towards the person I would become.
And it seems somehow insane to me that I could have gotten it — this rousing, angry work that shook me by my spine — at that cramped and nameless store, overseen by a woman who, I’m guessing, had gone into business to occupy her time. Maybe her husband had recently died, and the quiet of her home had become unbearable — so she opened a shop that was just as quiet as the place she had escaped. Maybe she’d wanted to bring a touch of politesse to downtown Newark, Delaware, where music blasted from low riders and fistfights proliferated when the bars let out. Maybe she was engaging in a quiet fight of her own, selling pleasant books to the few students who might appreciate the gesture. Obviously — judging by its swift closure — there weren’t enough of us.
That I could have found a book that so enflamed me in such a serene, well-meaning place now seems to me a rude and minor marvel, like a tabernacle choir breaking into “Fuck tha Police.” The store has been gone for nearly 20 years, and its owner, I assume, has passed on as well. But they slipped me something important in the time we had together — and for that, I can only offer thanks.
An “Any Soldier” care package was no curatorial feat. Rather, it was a cardboard box filled with good intention, a.k.a., Chef Boyardee and Dinty Moore cans, as had been skimmed from a pantry, or collected by a church drive. It seemed designed to make both recipient and provider feel precisely, lukewarmly O-K.
This was fine. It was lovely.
Still. No offense, but when a troop saw an open Any Soldier box, we generally moved on without a glance. We wagered that anything worth anything had been picked out or bartered, and we were just too spent for a letdown.
An unopened Any Soldier package, however, held value. Because no matter how hard you tried to murder hope — a mandate of the job — you couldn’t help but feel a flare of it ascend if you found an un-ravaged box. If you got to be the first and only Any Soldier.
This happened to me exactly once. The result: I learned about fiction from a box of Kurt Vonnegut books, Operation Desert Storm, 1991.
The scene was sand, and tent, and swelter, and blast concussion, and a small, unopened box, and me: a 19 year-old private in a camp in the desert void; a kid who’d gotten in enough trouble back home to risk his future, but who held enough privilege to get him out of said trouble; a kid whose father and grandfather had done tours in their respective wars. A white boy from the South who got into a state school based on base smarts and sub-base grades, the latter coupled to the asterisk* that he had joined the Army Reserve.
*He was a Good Kid who had found his way past setback c/o serving his country.
(At the time of my enlistment, the era of George H.W. Bush, the Army did not test for the chemicals I was fool enough to ingest.)
Point here was the Any Soldier box, unopened. No return address. I looked around as if to thwart a setup, then squatted on the sand floor of the tent and went at it. Ripping the tail of packing tape off of the top, I expected a reward of Spaghetti-O’s or Cheerios, or pray-God, Jolly Ranchers.
There was nothing there. Nothing but books. I read Slapstick out of obligation, and because it sat on top of the stack, and because its cover featured an illustrated clown. The titular allusion to clumsy, physical violence was wedded to the novel’s leitmotifs: “And so on” and “Hi ho.” Though employed as one-liner punchlines, these phrases also imported rhythmic, recurrent notes of social satire. “Hi ho” in particular addressed the futility of any given situation, including my own. It became a snare-pop to the ridiculous, We’re fucked, circumstance at camp, e.g., SCUD missile, Saddam, Sarin gas…Hi ho.
A few days later, when no one had rifled through the open box, I took it and stowed it in the sand under my cot. I then read Cat’s Cradle and Player Piano, before turning to the two texts I’d actually heard of, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. The former was a devastating, on-the-nose narrative about a veteran, Billy Pilgrim, whose life cycled back and forth through time, war to postwar, and again back to war.
Yet it was Breakfast of Champions that snared me, that made me think about the writing process itself. Specifically, I fell in love with Vonnegut’s “picture of an asshole” on page two, a description wed to an illustration like an asterisk:
Alongside crude scrawl, I’d been unaware that one could build a narrative out of nonlinear snippets, or wield language as declarative and disruptive as “Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.”
Christ, I thought, this is writing?
This was naïve. Breakfast had spent a year on best-seller lists before I turned three; there was a reason that even an applied non-reader like myself knew the name Vonnegut.
In fact, I realize now how puerile and/or unhip this reads. Whatever. Hi ho. Because in that desert, on the eve of the ground assault, as Warthog jets and tactical missiles slashed the sky, and as Republican Guard mobilized within striking distance of our compound, Breakfast’s complexity and humor, its polemic and timing and asterisk assholes were a revolution. Salvation, even.
Turns out the novel was the genesis text of “and so on,” having been published well before Slapstick. (I’d been reading the books in random order.) These three little syllables brought a gale force sandstorm. Importing both resignation and protest, and echoing the dehumanized, passive-aggressiveness of war, “and so on” represented everything my comrades and I were going through, and would go through.
Character-wise, I learned that Kilgore Trout could recur in additional works, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Breakfast and elsewhere; that his biography could alter, as could his physical appearance; that Trout’s very presence may or may not have anything to do with the narrator in Slaughterhouse — let alone Vonnegut himself. In other words, a character did not have to look, act, feel, or even exist the same way, let alone stay in the same story, or in any story whatsoever.
The Rules, to employ Slapstick, had the consistency of a “sparrow fart.”
Thus, reading Vonnegut in the desert, I was introduced to character, language, setting, satire, narrative structure, leitmotif, and an asterisk asshole. I vowed to get home alive, and to write.
Though my life did inch toward letters, it took another Iraq War for me to go all in. This time, the scene was grad school, Chicago, in the post-9/11 world. I was 32. Alongside workshops and lit theory, I scoured the public library for the primer texts I had avoided in high school and college. I read “Hills Like White Elephants,” and wrote a weeper about a couple whose clipped dialog hovers just above their anguish. After reading Jay Mac et al., I produced a pair of astonishingly poor novels featuring bruised young men. I signed letters to friends back home with “so it goes” — the Slaughterhouse-Five catchphrase, as is repeated over 100 times in the novel — and did not cite my source.
I was working to be a writer, working quite hard, actually, but I was still mostly a mimic. Which was fitting, perhaps, since what came next was the most Billy Pilgrim-esque sort of echo: the call for a new war in the old desert — Iraq — against the old enemy — Saddam Hussein — as waged by a new President Bush. I was 19 again — only I wasn’t. I was a bystander to my own memory.
This time, instead of mobilizing for deployment, I marched in the streets, hurling slogans and pamphlets. One afternoon, I stood at the back of a massive protest that featured an African-American state senator as keynote. (He was the only politician brave enough to oppose the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and I loved him for that, and his wisdom helped him become President.)
Yet just like those Vonnegut stories, made absurd by their refrain, our efforts came to naught. The war launched anyway. I lost it; I lay on the floor of my tiny apartment for days, skipping school and work and meals and sleep, and watching the war on television. Hi ho. I also wrote, finally, furiously, my depression unspooling with every hour of embedded news coverage. A rerun, I concurrently watched and remembered the sand and soldiers, Saddam and Bush. I recalled the lessons learned as the Any Soldier who found Vonnegut, or, perhaps, who was found by him.
At some point, the news coverage flashed a photo of Shoshana Johnson, a young, African-American female soldier. Shot in the legs, she was one of the first troops captured by the Iraqis.
She went to war. I went on a search: through humor, pain, sarcasm, critique, polemic. Filth. Violence. Quirk. Only, I didn’t want to write about me. I wanted to write about soldiers whose war stories didn’t earn as much coverage (and/or our relationship to the coverage itself). What’s more, I needed to explore the culture of war, this Pilgrim-esque loop, this Vonnegut-esque recurrence, and how and why the hell we perpetuate it. I wanted to write my own version of an asterisk asshole. I wanted to pluck up the emotions of the faraway battlefield, and plop them right down in your kitchen, your office, your car wash. I wanted to bring the war home.
I sometimes regret that I have never sent those Vonnegut books to a new Any Soldier. Since 1992 I’ve only moved them from shelf to shelf, college to job, marriage to divorce, all over the country. Twice, they have spent a year in a pal’s garage while I traversed the planet. Slapstick and Slaughterhouse, talismans of sorts. My war story, my memory, as written by someone else — which is mostly the case with a war story, it seems. Billy Pilgrim cycles back, just as George Bush cycles back, as did my grandfather and my father and me. As did Shoshana Johnson, and the thousands of young troops on my television. Any Soldiers, all the time, locked inside a story.
When I found Jim Thompson’s The Transgressors at a recent used book sale, I became cartoonishly excited. Thompson is one of my favorite pulp novelists, and there was nothing to dislike about my find: its cover depicted an old coupe stuck in rutted mud, with someone rushing, I guessed, to check a captive in its trunk. The back-cover copy described a reliably sadistic tale; an old New Republic blurb promised “a tour of hell.” It was called The Transgressors, for Christ’s sake. I couldn’t have asked for more.
My excitement stemmed from The Nothing Man, a 1954 Thompson novel that I discovered a decade ago, having never before heard of the book or the author. It told the story of a sexually disfigured veteran who goes on a killing spree to cover up his secret — as if being a serial killer was the lesser shame. It was a bizarre, unsettling book, angry with energy, that seemed to have been written yesterday, not during the Dwight D. Eisenhower years.
Unfortunately, it’s been downhill from there. In the years since, I’ve returned to Thompson again and again, and I’ve never recaptured the feeling that jumped from The Nothing Man. The Getaway — made famous by Steve McQueen, and later, Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger — came close, but was derailed by an outré epilogue that seemed imported from a different book. The Killer Inside Me, The Golden Gizmo, Pop. 1280 — all were fine, but none supplied the blast of that first discovery. The Transgressors turned out to be readable, but was the worst Thompson I’ve read — and it led me to ask myself a question common to fading relationships: Is it him or is it me?
I’ve experienced this pattern — manic love, followed by a futile attempt to regain said manic love — with others: I fell for T.C. Boyle after my brother slipped me The Tortilla Curtain, and despite Drop City, When the Killing’s Done, The Harder they Come, and others, it remains my favorite Boyle. Portnoy’s Complaint, The Sun Also Rises, and Billy Bathgate are my favorite Philip Roth, Ernest Hemingway, and E.L. Doctorow novels — and were the first of each I read. These are legendary figures, responsible for a raft of classics. Is it possible that out of all of their works, those three are the best? Did I just happen to choose each one’s greatest effort right out of the gate?
I would say that I didn’t. My experience with Thompson, and to a lesser degree with Boyle, has led me to believe that the discovery of a new style — Thompson’s turbo-charged dissolution; Boyle’s burbling streams of words — eclipses the storytelling that the style supports. Reading the stylistically unfamiliar — be it Evie Wyld or Lauren Groff or Patrick deWitt — can be so pleasingly disorienting that it leaves the reader giddy: This is incredible, we think as we flip on through. This is a totally new experience. As a reader, it’s the moment you seek — but that euphoria can also distort your inner Michiko Kakutani and set future expectations impossibly high.
Breakfast of Champions might not have been Kurt Vonnegut’s hands-down masterpiece, but I read it before any of his others — and for that, it’s elevated in my mind. With its drawings of sphincters and cows and general jokiness, it’s no Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five — but it doesn’t need to be, because the Vonnegut basics were there. And most importantly, for me, it came first. When you see a beautiful stranger across a crowded room, it doesn’t matter that he or she might not be having the most attractive day of his or her life. The spark fires either way, and you won’t forget the moment.
This isn’t to say that quality doesn’t matter. The first Danielle Steel novel you read will be as crummy as your last, and no matter when you read Tough Guys Don’t Dance, it won’t top The Naked and the Dead. But when a work is discovered can, at the very least, insert a welcome uncertainty to an overbearing consensus. In everything I’ve read about Jim Thompson, I haven’t seen much mention of The Nothing Man. This isn’t all that surprising, since he wrote more than 30 books. But critics consistently cite The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 as two of his best. Maybe they are. But maybe those critics would think differently if they’d read The Nothing Man first. As for me, I’ll keep trying: there are still a few unread Thompson novels sitting on my shelf.
Image Credit: Flickr/Steven Guzzardi
It was during the summer of 2009 that I first read the opening paragraph to German novelist Peter Handke’s 1970 novel, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. It remains the most tantalizingly confusing paragraph I’ve ever read:
When Joseph Bloch, a construction worker who had once been a well-known soccer goalie, reported for work that morning, he was told that he was fired. At least that was how he interpreted the fact that no one except the foreman looked up from his coffee break when he appeared at the door of the construction shack, where the workers happened to be at that moment, and Bloch left the building site. Out on the street he raised his arm, but the car that drove past — even though Bloch hadn’t been hailing a cab — was not a cab. Then he heard the sound of brakes in front of him. Bloch looked around: behind him there was a cab; its driver started swearing. Bloch turned around, got in, and told the driver to take him to the Naschmarkt.
In this paragraph, the reader finds a narrative method that feels like a double-negative, with all those nots. Bloch’s been fired, but only in his head. And yet he seems to lose his job anyway when he walks out of the construction shack. Termination happens without the pink slip. Except that it doesn’t. If that doesn’t feel like a true crossing of narrative wires (since Bloch might be “crazy” and therefore delusionally imagining the events of the story), it gets weirder. On the street, Bloch raises his hand, but not to hail a cab, and though the car he seemed to be hailing wasn’t a cab, a cab arrives anyway. When Bloch gets in, he immediately has a place in mind, a place he seems to have wanted to go. What I’m thinking is this: arrive early at a concert, and there’s a soundcheck—or, better, when I come early to an orchestral performance, I hear the violins and the cellos tuning up. The musicians test out notes. They try out their bows, adjusting the tension. They try out the gestures of musicians before performing. Handke’s opening salvo in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick seems like a tuning-up. The gestures get tried out and then mean something a second later. The hand shoots into the air. Then it becomes a hand hailing a cab. The opening paragraph of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick throws a little touch of rehearsal into its performance.
That can’t be right. The book stays weird. Near the end, it uses simple, word-sized pictures instead of words to describe Bloch’s actions. So, Handke doesn’t eliminate the sense of a rehearsal’s effort, but it doesn’t feel like effort. The novel’s opening paragraph is stone-faced. Its confidence has no air of practice. A point of comparison seems in order. The end of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel, Breakfast of Champions, features a hand-drawn picture — a cartoon, really — of Vonnegut himself, with a single tear running down his cheek. Just a few pages previous, the novel has concluded with a meeting between Vonnegut and his own character, Kilgore Trout. He grants Trout free will — he wants to free all the characters who have served him “loyally” over the years, but is only telling Trout — but as the narrator/Vonnegut disappears into the void, he hears Trout exclaim, desperately: Make me young, make me young, make me young! This is the opposition that exists in an unstated fashion between Handke and Bloch, right? And if so, what does that mean?
Characters, it seems, are pawns. They are creatures raised to the status of automatons by “acting” the way their creators want them to. In one sense (the classic analytic sense by which literature is held to be mimetic, i.e. imitative of actual life), this state of affairs leaves characters in one hell of a pickle. Supposedly, their emotional lives resemble the emotional lives of readers, but characters have been programmed. In a weird way, then, all literary characters are undead. Imbued with the qualities of life (certain kinds of movement), but lacking the autonomy of real people, they stagger through the landscapes of the novels and stories they appear in, following the paths laid out for them like idiot zombies cornered in a dead end. What Vonnegut suggests is that this is abuse. Characters, were they really free, would want the chance to have back what Trout wants back: to start from the beginning on his own. At the beginning of Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, this is why there isn’t any true sense of practice. When Bloch raises his arm, the narration begins to say But the car that drove past wasn’t a cab, but then has to quickly add that Bloch wasn’t hailing a cab. It’s as though Bloch is resisting the position he’s been put in. After all, he seems to decide he is fired all by himself. Reversing the usual relation between character and narrative, Handke seems to find Bloch slippery in his grasp. There’s no practice, just trouble.
For part of May and June in 2009, I was living in Iowa City, attending a summer writing program at the Iowa Writers Workshop. It was a relatively short commitment, just three weeks, and I rented a tiny bedroom in a strange apartment complex on a hill near the university’s campus. On the complex was a house where, I was told, Vonnegut had once lived. There was no bed in my room, though there was an ugly green couch. I slept on an air mattress that deflated every single night, slowly lowering me to the ground as I slept. It was like those cartoons where someone’s spirit-self settles carefully back into the sleeping or dead body so that the person can get up, except that I would wake in the morning at roughly eye level with the ugliest bluish carpet I had ever seen. The mini-fridge in the room had swirls of brown stains that I tried to clean, but couldn’t scrub into the proper degree of oblivion. For some reason, I bought a package of bologna at a corner store, thinking that this time and place was the exact moment in my life when I should finally try bologna. As I sat in that hot room, trying to be in physical contact with as few surfaces as possible, I read a series of books, including The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. My living situation at that time is fun for me to write about now, of course; it has the touch of squalor that makes the writing I did at the time seem grounded in a kind of discomfort that’s stupidly perfect for a wannabe writer. Except, that’s all a sham. The second weekend, I retreated back to Minneapolis for two days, mostly so I could sleep with the woman I was seeing at the time. What I like about Bloch is his apparent flashing between different intentions: now he means one thing, now another. What I dislike about myself when I look back at a strange period of desperation in my mid-twenties is that I was so remarkably consistent. Must remain in relationship, no matter the cost may very well have been my motto. If I had accidentally hailed a cab back then, I wouldn’t have told it to take me anywhere at all.
These are questionable conclusions. Sure, my loneliness at the time felt a bit impressive to me. It always feels unusual to go multiple days in a row without speaking to anyone. It wasn’t glum, however. Yes, the room was small enough that I could feel my laptop making it hotter. No, there was no internet. But, the communal kitchen was surprisingly clean. The kicker was that the word “DEAD” was stenciled backwards on the thin, wood-paneled wall of the room and through the wall I could hear my immediate neighbor, who seemed to be a permanent resident, watching MacGuyver. This is the key to Bloch’s situation at the beginning of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick: it’s really very silly.
Handke’s novel is a murderer’s tale. Bloch goes out and kills a woman within the first few pages of the book. His homicidal actions have the same disconnect as that double-negative spirit that sweeps through the first paragraph. What is Bloch’s role, then? What’s his responsibility? Murderers sometimes have alibis, but not really. Since the killers are the ones who did the killing, their alibis — if they even have them — are inevitably false. If Bloch had an alibi, though, it would feel true even when it was a lie. Handke puts the question to the idea of Bloch’s responsibility in a peculiarly uncomfortable way. A man who hails a cab by waving randomly at a car that is not a cab seems caught in the teeth of some machine that liberates him even as it clamps down. So it’s not that the first paragraph of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick is silly haha; it’s silly because the idea that Bloch works his way through the world in this fashion, with the alibi of his own irresponsibility, puts us back in a naïve reading of Handke’s novel, the reading that says Joseph Bloch is crazy, that he’s a psycho, a jangled weirdo who decides he’s been fired and accidentally hails a cab before deciding, I’ll go to the Naschmarkt. If he’s crazy, and if the book simply wants to convey that keyed-up insanity, the opening paragraph is silly because it doesn’t seem to tell us we should be laughing. It’s not funny.
Laughter is not the only kind of funny. In his short essay on Kafka, David Foster Wallace comments that part of what makes it difficult for his students to appreciate the humor in Kafka’s stories is that “the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle” — and that, Wallace writes, is comical. The trouble is that trouble is our only business: ha! ha! Handke’s paragraph on Bloch has the same sense of comedy. I can think of no other piece of writing that so simply and richly conveys that sensation where one feels both deeply responsible for and irresistibly forced into one’s actions. For example, imagine how funny it would be if Death came to you and said, Hey, it’s time for you to die, sorry and you said, Haha, not this time, Grim Reaper and then ran straight off a cliff, Wile E. Coyote-style. Obviously, that’s completely hilarious. And so is Joseph Bloch.
It’s not until the ending of Handke’s novel that the book’s opening paragraph seems to be explained. By tale’s end, Bloch is intently watching a penalty kick. He rehearses in his head all the thoughts that must be nagging the goalie, who doesn’t know where the kicker will try to put the ball. Then:
The kicker suddenly started his run. The goal-keeper, who was wearing a bright yellow jersey, stood absolutely still, and the penalty kicker shot the ball directly into his hands.
Apologies, I know I’m jumping ahead; these are the last sentences of the novel. The suspense of consideration — the goalie wonders whether he should dive this way or that and whether the penalty kicker will be counting on his diving this way or that — was all for naught. If the problem in the opening of the novel was that Bloch’s gestures didn’t line up with clear intentions, the gesture of the penalty kick is perfectly in sync with a hoped-for meaning. The ball goes right into the goalie’s hands. The gesture of kick and catch line up exactly. There is no lag between kicker and goalie, character and author. What a wonderful world. But it is not Bloch’s world at all.
We only have words for things that bother us. Language is anxiety given material form. Or, rather, words designate those things about which it is possible to think, those things we have to deal with. If things were inert, not worthy of notice, we wouldn’t mention them and wouldn’t be able to. There’d be no words. That there is a word indicates a snag, a hitch we have to consider. In the opening paragraph of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Handke’s narration presumes the meaning of Bloch’s raising his arm before really understanding the intent. Bloch was, after all, just raising his arm. What does anyone know about what that gesture means? What is the word for it? “Hailing”? But, of course, Bloch ended up hailing a cab anyway. The point is: what do Bloch’s intentions matter? Language doesn’t care about us. Conventional meanings are always at the ready. Perhaps it is not so much that the narration is lagging behind Bloch’s actions as lagging around Bloch’s actions. The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, being a novel, will record the forward momentum of a plot in which Bloch goes some “where,” does something, murders someone, wanders some “where” again. But even if a fictional narrative is the case and the context, Handke’s opening paragraph suggests Bloch’s alienation from the plot in which he’s helplessly snared. He tries the gestures for reasons other than their meaning. It’s a stretching of muscles. But it’s raising your hand or opening your mouth that gets you in the worst kinds of trouble.
Image courtesy the author
Watch out! Vonnegut is definitely habit-forming!
-From a Dell Books Advertisement for Welcome to The Monkey House, 1974
On a recent morning, I boarded a New York subway car, glancing at the riders as I settled into a seat. A homeless man slept in a corner; three skate rats hovered above him, snickering greasily. A few others read tabloids with Manhattan disinterest; an Orthodox wife corralled her squirming kids. Despite the varied scene, I was most interested in the man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age, and was intently reading a book. I looked away—then, with blasé nosiness, went back for the title: Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. The man was absorbed, no doubt reading it for the first time. I turned away again, mild jealousy creeping in. I wish I could do that, I thought.
I wished this not because Bluebeard is a great book—though it’s close, one of Vonnegut’s best late novels—but because it was a Vonnegut. It’s been years since I’ve read him, and in the weeks since that train ride, I’ve come to see how much his work once meant to me, and how much I miss it now.
I discovered Vonnegut, unoriginally enough, in college. In a small used bookstore, long since vanished, a row of hardcovers caught my eye. I knelt and came up with Breakfast of Champions. The title was written in tiny aqua type; underneath, much larger, was the author’s name, in an appealing Cooper font. The name “Kurt Vonnegut” was both familiar and intrinsically appealing: spiky, ugly, and elegant. As I flipped through, I found crude pen drawings—tombstones, cows, an asshole. In between were passages like this:
Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars.
The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a whore, she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices.
A dinosaur was a reptile as big as a choo-choo train.
It seemed sad and strange and new. I was in. I gave five dollars to the smiling elderly clerk, walked it home, and, splayed in my beer-stained beanbag chair, flew clean through it. As it turned out, I’d been right: Breakfast of Champions was crushingly sad, thoroughly strange, and unlike anything I’d read. It was anguished by our mindlessness, but laced with knowing glee. Despite its outraged pessimism, it was quite a lot of fun. I needed more.
I returned to the bookstore and made its Vonneguts mine. A different second-hand shop kept their KVs behind the counter, as liquor stores do with their best stuff. The books back there were more expensive, but I didn’t care. Could I have those? I asked. Yes, please. All of them.
Though I read other authors in the months that followed, Vonnegut was the magnetic core of my reading world. I jumped from the brilliant (Cat’s Cradle) to the good (Player Piano) to the blah (Jailbird) to the brilliant (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). I was troubled by Mother Night, addled by Slaughterhouse-Five. On a visit home, I found Hocus Pocus on my father’s shelf, and promptly stole it away. Even at their leanest, Vonnegut’s stories worked by wheeling massive concerns—annihilation, fate, the return of Jesus Christ—through bloated cartoon worlds. He hit the pleasure centers with sickening ease; the junk was strong. I read his short stories and essays, interviews and speeches; I painted an elaborate gouache portrait of him. I befriended a collector of “Vonnegut ephemera” who claimed to have been a character in Slapstick. I pushed the books on others, then fretted for their return. I read The Eden Express, his son’s psychosis memoir. And then, within a year or so of finding Breakfast of Champions, I was done. It had been like bingeing on mangoes.
In this way, Vonnegut’s virtuosity was its own detriment: having fallen so hard for his humor-glazed rage, I had no choice but to rip through everything. There are plenty of other authors who I’ve liked just as much—T.C. Boyle, say, or Michael Chabon—but with them, I’ve never felt the completist urge. Riven Rock, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the rest have been set aside for the future. But Vonnegut disallowed such patience. Once I began, the existence of more fed a steady, low-grade mania.
It’s a testament to his skill that in the years since, I’ve never become embarrassed by that mania. There’s a tendency to disown one’s teenage enthusiasms, to feel that our supposed refinement has made us somehow wiser. To be sure, I’d rather sand off my nose than read Skinny Legs and All to the strains of Jethro Tull. But Vonnegut, though best-loved in the days of beanbag chairs and Escher prints, is different. Unlike Pirsig or Meddle or Jäger, he transcends the collegiate—too sternly pissed to be relegated to a rash and eager past.
So I’ve resolved to reread the man. I’ve taken my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, down from the shelf. To my surprise, having it so near has made me anxious, as if an ex-girlfriend has returned. Its tattered front cover is taped to the spine; its pages are flaky and tan. The back cover says that “Only recently has the general public become aware of his unique genius.” It’s old and frail, but its words remain pungent, tragic, insane:
“And then they tied me to a stake, burned me alive, and dumped my ashes into the nearest stream. As I say, I haven’t been back since.”
If you are a popular and prolific enough author, an interesting thing happens to your books, they all begin to look the same. This is the primary outward manifestation of an author as a brand. As a large oeuvre gets rounded out to perhaps a dozen or two titles, the publisher picks a certain design and rereleases all the titles to have that design. This makes a lot of sense. If you are a fan of Prolific Author A and are working your way through his body of work, you’ll soon be on the lookout for the distinctive style his publisher has chosen for his paperbacks. The problem is that all too often, these uniform designs are ugly. My prescription, however, is to scale back on the shared elements and to try to present each book more uniquely so that it feels like as much effort has gone into packaging each individual book as went into to writing it.From my days in the bookstore, I know how important, often subconsciously so, book cover design can be. With that in the mind, there are some very well-known authors whose uniformly designed books are doing them a disservice and deserve an overhaul:The Vintage paperback editions of William Faulkner’s novels have it all: terrible fonts, jarring colors, and strange, bland art. The covers betray none of the complexity of Faulkner’s work and instead promise soft-focus confusion. They feel dated and badly in need of a refresh. Better versions: Check out the prior paperback covers of As I Lay Dying from Penguin and Vintage.Maybe it’s the frames around the Ballantine John Irving paperback covers, but they remind me of hotel art. Irving’s masterful narratives have been reduced to representative but inanimate objects – a nurse’s uniform, a motorcycle – that occupy the safe middle ground that Irving’s books eschew. Better versions: There is a certain dignity to the text-only designs that once graced Irving’s covers.
For a writer as inventive and unique as Kurt Vonnegut, it sure seems like a shame to just slap a big “V” on all his covers and call it a day. Better versions: They may not offer a uniform look, bit I prefer the energy of the old pocket paperback versions of Vonnegut’s novels.
Far better are the Vintage Murakami paperbacks, which evoke some of the most jarring and surreal qualities of Murakami’s fiction. They also maintain a consistent aesthetic and yet they still vary from title to title. Even better versions: The Chip Kidd-designed British hardcover of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle captures the vivid imagery while hinting at the underlying complexity.
Mickey Hess is an English professor at Rider University and the author of Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory and a bunch of books about hip hop.The best thing I read in 2008 was Richard Brautigan’s Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel. It is one of my favorite books that begin with a sombrero falling to earth from outer space, and it’s one of those books that makes you feel kind of stupid for not having been reading this author all of your life.With the resurgence of interest in Donald Barthelme, people seem to have forgotten his West Coast contemporary, Richard Brautigan, who was doing similar experiments with prose and form out in California. Or it may not be that people have forgotten to include Brautigan among the pantheon of great 20th-century literary experimenters so much as he never really was included.Brautigan had the mixed luck of becoming a countercultural hero and seeing his fame peak too soon. Someone called him the last of the Beats, and his popularity among the hippies (whom truckers hated) led to truck stops not stocking his novels, which led to the literary establishment thumbing its nose at his stories. This is the way it works.Brautigan’s style of humor, while it made him a star among hippies, did not see the same response from the critics as Bartheleme or Kurt Vonnegut, two other writers whom I’d chisel into my literary Mount Rushmore. Critics, for some reason, seemed to think that Brautigan’s writing was something like jacking off.Brautigan jokes about being a hack in his short story “1/3, 1/3, 1/3,” in which a novelist who can’t write teams up with a typist who can’t type and an editor who can’t spell. The story contains one of the best lines ever in a short story: “You sur like veel cutlets don’t you Maybel said she was holding holding her pensil up her mowth.” It ends with the three of them “sitting there in that rainy trailer, pounding at the gates of American literature.” Man.Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel was published in 1976, simultaneously in Japan and America. Brautigan dedicates the book to Junichiro Tanizaki, and he draws from the terse prose style and short chapters employed by Tanizaki in The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man. Around this same point in his career, Brautigan wrote novels in a series of different weird genres: a gothic western, an historical romance, and a perverse mystery. They’re all good books, but they don’t all feature sombreros.Sombrero Fallout begins with a sombrero falling from the sky onto the Main Street of a small American town. Then, the very brief chapters alternate between the bizarre story of how the mayor and the townspeople deal with the sombrero (spoiler alert: they kill a librarian), and the heart-wrenching story of an American humorist who has broken up with his Japanese girlfriend, Yukiko.Just as Kurt Vonnegut depicts Kilgore Trout’s gravestone in Breakfast of Champions, Brautigan offers an epitaph for his own alter-ego in Sombrero Fallout. The American humorist was expected to live longer than Brautigan did (he killed himself in 1984, twenty-five years too soon). As 2008 – the year I discovered Richard Brautigan – comes to a close, it seems fitting that he marked this upcoming year as his projected date of death:An American Humorist1934-2009Rest in PeaceHe’s Not Jacking Off AnymoreMore from A Year in Reading 2008
I’m going to Buffalo for a wedding this weekend, so you may not hear from me for a couple of days. But if you are in dire need of something to read in the intervening time, allow me to make a suggestion, or two. Most people have read one or two books by Kurt Vonnegut, and most people enjoy them. Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat’s Cradle are probably the most widely read Vonnegut books. Most folks enjoy those books, and then never read any Vonnegut again. This is a big mistake! There are number of other amazing Vonnegut books, so allow me to present to you the best of the rest (along with brief descriptions): The Sirens of Titan (“The richest and most depraved man on Earth takes a wild space journey to distant worlds, learning about the purpose of human life along the way.”); Galapagos (“A small group of apocalypse survivors stranded on the Galapagos Islands are about to become the progenitors of a brave new human race.”); Hocus Pocus (“A small, exclusive college in upstate New York is nestled along the frozen shores of Lake Mohiga… and directly across from a maximum-security prison. The two institutions manage to coexist peacefully, until 10,000 prisoners break out and head directly for the college.”); Welcome to the Monkey House (“This collection of Vonnegut’s short masterpieces share his audacious sense of humor and extraordinary creative vision.”); and finally God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (“Eliot Rosewater, drunk, volunteer fireman, and president of the fabulously rich Rosewater foundation, is about to attempt a noble experiment with human nature… with a little help from writer Kilgore Trout.”)