Jailbird: A Novel

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A Sensitive Meatball: On Kurt Vonnegut’s Letters

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In his introduction to Letters, the collected letters of Kurt Vonnegut, the novelist Dan Wakefield writes of his friend, “Nothing came easy for him. Nothing deterred him…” He goes on to list the things that did not deter Vonnegut, among them: “the many editors and publishers who rejected his books and stories…the Guggenheim Foundation, which rejected his first application for a fellowship…his Cape Cod neighbors who didn’t read his books and expressed no interest in what he did for a living.” Rounding out the list of doubters and haters with the right-wing Christians, Wakefield concludes, “Anyone who imagines a writer’s life has ever been easy — even one who eventually achieves fame and fortune — will be disabused of that fantasy after reading these letters. And they will be inspired.”

Vonnegut had such a fine grump-humanist sensibility, and such a surprising turn of phrase — now-goofy, now-eviscerating — that his collected letters were destined to bring forth bounty. (Here is the man who writes to the Junior League of Indianapolis to chastise them for renaming their headquarters, signing off: “Perhaps Indianapolis deserves its inferiority complex after all, since it is rapidly becoming nothing but a real estate development and a so-so football team stolen from Baltimore.”)

So yes, in my own sour little way, I was inspired by these letters, because I am inspired by a friendly humanist with a great work ethic and a dark sense of humor. But I also found them pretty sad. While it’s true that the life of Vonnegut did not appear to be easy, reading these letters, it wasn’t indifferent awards committees or prudish readers or the Chicago anthropologists who jumped out as the major roadblocks in the man’s life. Reading these letters, it seemed like Kurt Vonnegut’s biggest obstacle to happiness was Kurt Vonnegut.

The danger of publishing someone’s letters is that people will use them to form opinions that might horrify anyone who actually knew the subject. That said, please bear with me as I tell you about a kind of stuffed meatball you can get in Turkey. In Turkish, the meatball is described as “with insides,” which is also how you say “sensitive.” Thus it happens that in Turkey you routinely see English menus touting “sensitive meatballs,” which is just about the most poignant anthropomorphism in history.

Reading the letters of Kurt Vonnegut evoked this meatball: emotional, touchy, absurd. It shouldn’t surprise me, because I am pretty sure it’s some kind of trope, but I am nonetheless surprised that a successful, vital, and by most accounts delightful man, who was always coming out with important books and fine statements, should have so often felt the need to convince other people of his worth — and particularly, that he would engage people from the three demographics least likely to budge from a position about one’s merits or lack thereof: critics, philistines, and one’s own children.

In the first camp, Anatole Broyard, to whom Vonnegut wrote in 1981:

I thank you for your comments on how slowly my literary reputation is dying. Part of the problem, surely, is that all my books remain in print, and people continue to give me credit for having written them. There is also the confusion caused by Jailbird, which was much too good to have been written by someone at my stage of decay…

Next, a word to the book-burners of Drake, North Dakota:

I gather from what I read in the papers…that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of rat-like people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War Two, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work…

And finally, he writes to his children. I’m a sensitive meatball myself, so it was almost too much to read these letters during the long, November slide to the holidays, when family things, anyone’s family things, seem more raw and proximal than they usually do. I squirmed at Vonnegut’s many letters to his daughter Nanette, in which he tries to set her straight about his divorce and his new companion, Jill Krementz. When she, teenager-like, flakes on an appointment, he writes:

I don’t like the way you treat me at all. You have totally wrecked me with your absent-minded, dumb Dora promises to come see me, and with your equally fog-bound, last minute announcements that your life has become so complicated, hi ho, that you cannot come. I would find such indifference to my feelings painful, even if it came from a little kid. You are chronologically a grown-up now. But you are clearly unable to imagine me as a living, interesting, sensitive, vulnerable human being. God only knows that you think I am.

Around the same time, Vonnegut writes to thank the scholar Peter Reed for his favorable criticism and tells him, “I have sent your book to my eighteen-year-old daughter, so she can be absolutely certain that she has a keen old man.”

(Nanette is now a grown-up and a writer and, lately, the subject of a nice interview at The Rumpus. It’s on the record that she’s absolutely certain she had a “keen old man.” So that worked out. But it’s still sad to read those letters, and it’s sad that he tells Nanny about how nourishing and egalitarian this new relationship is, and then we read how she’s cheating, and then, when he is quite an old man, Vonnegut writes that he is “living one day at a time, and have to, Jill is so volatile.”)

John Irving was a student of Vonnegut’s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Maybe it is something in the water there; Vonnegut’s communique to the book burners reminded me of the letter Irving’s character T.S. Garp, himself a novelist, writes to an incensed reader in The World According to Garp. In response to Garp’s lengthy explanation of the ways that she has misapprehended his work, the reader writes, “I can see by your letter that you believe in yourself and I guess that’s good. But the things you say are mostly garbage and nonsense to me, and I don’t want you to try to explain anything to me again, because it is boring and an insult to my intelligence.”

Perhaps Vonnegut’s letter really did make the censorious Mr. McCarthy (his actual name) of Drake, N.D., see the light about Slaughterhouse-Five, but I have my doubts. I think it takes more than a letter, even a letter from a letter-writer like Kurt Vonnegut, to change the mind of a person who would burn a book. And it surprises me that someone with Vonnegut’s sense of irony, Mr. So-it-Goes, would deem it worth trying.

Vonnegut was highly attuned the value of time and effort, as in the dollar value, something that creative types with no money generally have to spend a lot of time thinking about (and have to try not to spend a corresponding amount of time talking about). One of the most interesting (and also disheartening) things about Vonnegut’s letters is his exegesis of the financials of being an artist; necessity made Vonnegut a horse trader and kind of a hardass. I laughed at his advice to his son Mark, an aspiring artist:

You might give the next guy who wants to buy a painting from you a lesson in art appreciation that goes like this: A small tube of paint costs a dollar, a canvas costs two dollars, and the minimum legal wage in this country is now a dollar and a quarter an hour. Percy Leen did me the big favor of admiring my paintings and actually hanging them on her walls. I figure this honor cost me about forty bucks or more every time she awarded it to me.

And when an Indiana librarian asks him for a $7.50-copy of his latest novel, he asks whether the asphalt makers will likewise be asked to furnish their wares free of charge to the state.

I can’t imagine that a person who thought of time and work in those terms would write a sassy letter to Anatole Broyard on a lark, to be cute, to waste the day. I read touchiness and need in his letters — to set the record straight about himself, about the way things are. When the sensitive meatball’s need to persuade confronts the unwillingness of people and life to be persuaded, it makes for great reading. But it must have been exhausting to live.

A Report on the Vonnegut Effect

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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.

And this:

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.

And this:

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.”

Surprise Me!