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.
Our own Emily Mandel may have been onto something with her “catastrophic” summer reading list; dystopia seems to be all the rage this summer. The WSJ sets Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death in “a dystopian United States that is halfway between Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano and Woody Allen’s Sleeper.” The SF Chron calls Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story “literature’s first dystopian epistolary romantic satire.” And later this year, as we noted this month, will be Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez, which focuses on a cultish community in the dystopian aftermath of a flu pandemic.
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.”
Awoke to the news that Kurt Vonnegut died. His death was somewhat unexpected, coming after a fall at his home in New York, but he lived a full life, even penning a surprise bestseller that put him back in the public eye in 2005. That was fun to see because, though Vonnegut may be one of the most important writers out there for me as a reader, most of his literary output came before I was born.When I was a younger reader, I was a completist. I didn’t have knowledge of dozens of books and writers at my fingertips, so when I found a book I really liked, I would read everything by that author. And so it was that I read substantially everything that Vonnegut had written before I left home for college, starting with a late novel, Hocus Pocus, after finding it lying around the house when I was 14 or 15, and finishing up with Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, on a long, late-summer car ride home from Maine, a few weeks before moving away from home. So, in many ways, Vonnegut was in the background through my teenage years, providing a vivid counterpoint to the mundanities of suburban high school life. His books are very important to who I am as a reader and a writer, so I’m sad to see him go.Some links: My call for more people to read the lesser-known Vonnegut novels. The New York Times obit.Update: Some of you may be seeing a lot of folks writing “so it goes” today in response to Vonnegut’s death. For those who are curious as to why, the phrase comes from what is perhaps his most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five, where he wrote: “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.'”Also, I found Vonnegut’s official site to be particularly poignant today.