Sunday, April 15, 2007

Goodbye Blue Monday!

THAT'S THE SUBTITLE of Breakfast of Champions, the first Kurt Vonnegut book I ever read. I don't recall who tipped me off that I should read it. It was in high school, or maybe junior high, so it might have been my good friend Skap. He seems a likely suspect. Either he told me to read it, or I told him to read it, one way or the other. After that point, we both consumed Vonnegut's books as if they were candy.

Other than Harlan Ellison, I don't think there's another author who influenced my early years of writing as much. It's funny to look back and to re-read Vonnegut and Ellison, their styles almost antithetical to one another, and to try to see what it was that put those two writers at the top of my list. I mean, they couldn't write enough books to satisfy my appetite. But where Ellison's prose is more ornate or florid, Vonnegut is spare, unadorned. Both can be hilarious -- I'm sure that appealed to me -- and both can be heartbreaking. But it was Vonnegut's prose I first emulated. It was Vonnegut I most wanted to be.

I read nearly everything he wrote, my enthusiasm only waning about a decade ago when I read Timequake, his self-proclaimed "final novel", when it was obvious that his colossal talent as a novelist had faded. It made me sad, of course. You never want to see your heroes become human, I think. It's also, in a way, unsurprising. (Far less surprising, in fact, than a life-long smoker like Kurt to have made it to 84.) Vonnegut admits in the prologue to Timequake that the novel as it exists is cobbled together from the first stab at the novel, comparing it the marlin in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea: "My great big fish, which stunk so, was entitled Timequake. Let us think of it as Timequake One. And let us think of this one, a stew made from its best parts mixed with thoughts and experiences during the past seven months or so, as Timequake Two."

He mentions that he spent a decade on the book before finally realizing it didn't work. Timequake, such as it is, isn't bad. It's just not the fitting finale for a career that includes Slaughterhouse-Five, Sirens of Titan, Cat's Cradle and, of course, Breakfast of Champions. But the great thing is this: Those books still exist, and re-reading them is no less amazing than reading them the first time.

So that's what I'm doing.

I pulled my Vonnegut books off the shelf and started re-reading them. Hadn't really read him, I think, since Timequake. For whatever reason, I started with Galapagos (1985). And I'll continue to read them in whatever order strikes me, not because I've become unstuck in time, but because it seems fitting somehow. Or maybe I just think it'll be fun to read whichever novel next appeals to me. Who knows, I may read Timequake next.

So, Kurt Vonnegut has, in his own way, come unstuck in time, passing away on the same day as the great black actor Roscoe Lee Browne. Don't know if that means anything. I also don't know if there's any significance to the fact that it is the same day in history when Napoleon was exiled to Elba (1814), when the ill-fated Apollo 13 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral heading for the moon (1970) and when Harry Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his duties in Korea (1951). It's also the day Scott Joplin died (1917).

There's a great quote that someone else pulled apparently from Timequake (although I have no recollection of it, but I'll find out sooner or later if that's where it's really from). And instead of signing off with "So it goes," I will sign off with this:

I spoke at a Humanist Association memorial service for Dr. Asimov a few years back. I said, "Isaac is up in Heaven now." That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of Humanists. I rolled them in the aisles...When I myself am dead, God forbid, I hope some wag will say about me, "He's up in Heaven now."

1 comment:

BrightCrayon said...

Ironically enough. My first taste of Vonnegut was also "Breakfast of Champions". Senior year of HS, in my reading class.

And when I get the time, and all of the rest of his books.. I will go through them like water.