May 2009

And now for something completely Vonnegut...

By David Feela

Roughly two years ago, a man of genius took an awkward fall, which amounted to his last bow, as he left the stage that Shakespeare has compared to this world. On April 11, 2007, this man exited without ever saying a direct word to me. I did manage to see him perform at Fort Lewis College back in the early 1980s and thanks to my friend Bob, I now possess a signed copy of Vonnegut’s “Timequake.”

If I had my way, Kurt Vonnegut’s name would show up in dictionaries of the future, not only as a reference to the deceased author of “Slaughterhouse Five” and 24 other literary works, but also as a synonym for telling the truth with just enough humor to make somebody listen. I know it’s difficult to imagine an author’s last name used as a verb, as in The President tried to vonnegut the press conference, but skepticism hung in the air like cigar smoke. Isn’t the use of Vonnegut’s name here so much more pleasing than having to beat around the George Bush?

In his final book, “A Man Without a Country,” Vonnegut mentions the name of a British general, Henry Shrapnel, a man who engineered a means to send metal fragments out from an exploding shell or bomb, all for the sake of killing and maiming additional victims that the blast did not knock into obscurity. Vonnegut writes, “Don’t you wish you had something named after you?”

What a terrible thing, to have Shrapnel’s bloody name preserved in the lexicon and not Vonnegut’s. At least Alfred Nobel had the audacity to obscure his notoriety as the inventor of dynamite by dedicating his fortune to the pursuit of peace. Andrew Carnegie, the steel company magnet, attracted so much wealth that near the end of his life he gave huge sums away to build Carnegie libraries in communities all across the country. He’s remembered for his generosity, not his heavy-handed labor tactics.

Thomas Crapper wasn’t so lucky. Thomas (in this case I prefer the informality of first names) had no vision when it came to foreseeing how posterity would remember him. Or if he did, he must have cringed at his own ingenuity until the day he died.

Vonnegut himself was no slouch at coining words. I remember his invention for achieving space travel with chronosynclasticinfindimulum, and the rhythm of that word has lodged in my brain for over 30 years as musically as Mary Poppin’s supercalifragilisticexpealodosis. I still smile at Vonnegut’s imaginative precursor to Viagra in his novel “Slapstick,” a sexual practice referred to as “bookamaro”o where two people press the soles of their feet together for erotic thrills. Of course, he also became the master of transitions threaded throughout his novels, with the likes of So it goes, So be it, Hi Ho, and Good for You.

Like Mark Twain, Vonnegut the humorist got more cynical as he aged. Two of his habits nearly did him in: Smoking in bed – which started a fire in his home – and consuming a regular nightcap, a practice which helped him sleep so soundly it nearly turned him into toast.

It is tragic that he once felt so bad about the world where he lived that he attempted to take his own life. That he lived long enough (84) to be disappointed by humanity is not a surprise; that he remained able to laugh up until the end is a miracle.

David Feela writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.