I recently read And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields' thorough, fair and engrossing biography of Kurt Vonnegut. If you’ve followed this blog more than casually, you know that Vonnegut’s work has had a huge impact on me. After journeying with KV (or perhaps I should say Shields’ vision of KV) from cradle to grave, from literary obscurity to unexpected global fame, I was moved to write something about that impact. Then I remembered that I already did that, six years ago, when Vonnegut passed away. Nothing I write now could say it better, so I yield the floor to my 2007 self.
Kurt Vonnegut died last night. He was a writer whose work imprinted very deeply on my mind, heart and soul. (He, of course, wasn’t much of a believer in souls. In fact, he was a proud, defiant un-believer.) Vonnegut’s influence resonates through my work, especially Moonshadow: my alien tricksters, the G’l-Doses, are clearly distant cousins of Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians and Moon himself may be a distant cousin of Billy Pilgrim (if you don’t understand the references, immediately one-click yourself a copy of Slaughterhouse Five, one of the great American novels of the past century). It was Vonnegut’s heart that resonated the deepest: for a man who claimed to be an atheist, he was a profoundly spiritual writer, because he was a profoundly compassionate one. Vonnegut may have cursed homo sapiens as a race of brainless, destructive buffoons, but he understood that, with rare exceptions, most of us are doing our best in a strange and sometimes difficult world. He loved humanity dearly and that love oozed out of the pages of his best books.
It would be easy to send such Vonnegut off on his own journey to Tralfamadore with the words most readers associate with him: “So it goes.” I’d prefer to end with words I've quoted often over the years. Words spoken by the lead character in my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. When Eliot Rosewater is asked to baptize newborn twins, he improvises a memorable welcome to Planet Earth. It ends like this:
“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—: ’God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”
Others may remember him for his brilliant humor, his social commentary, his anger and outrage, but I’ll remember Kurt Vonnegut for his extraordinary heart.
©copyright 2013 J.M. DeMatteis