The year I met Steve Almond was also the year I picked up (Not That You Asked) and the year I read his gorgeous homage to Kurt Vonnegut, “Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt.” It’s the crown jewel of a solid essay collection, sixty pages that seems for a moment like a memoir but ultimately delves deeper into the meaning of Vonnegut’s work than anything I’ve ever read.
The essay stayed with me. Like Steve, and so many people our age (Gen. Xers who hate to be marketed to and don’t join groups but all agree that The Pixies is the most underrated band of all time) I tore through Kurt Vonnegut in college. There was something in the clunky sentences- a deep kindness, a piercing humor- that got right to the heart of things.
Kurt Vonnegut was born today, on Veterans Day, a day which is also called Armistice Day. And that’s what Vonnegut would tell people, that he was born on Armistice day. He was a man with deep reverence for peace who knew firsthand the horrors of war and the ending of war was something to be celebrated. Today, in honor of Vonnegut, we are reprinting Steve Almond’s essay in full.
– Stephen Elliott
The Failed Prophecy of Kurt Vonnegut (and How It Saved My Life)
You are writing for strangers. Face the audience of strangers.
It would be fair to call me one of the Kurt Vonnegut cult, though a member in poor standing. I read all of his books in high school and college, most of them six times, and I’m sure I walked around for a good number of years spouting little Vonnuggets of wisdom, as his followers so incessantly do.
I devoted most of my senior year in college to a detailed study of his work, writing a thesis titled “Authorial Presence in the Works of Kurt Vonnegut,” a copy of which I recently asked my mother to send me, in her capacity as Chief Curator of the Steve Almond Archives, a capacity, I should add, that she views as the necessary burden of having raised an itinerant narcissist. The Archives have fallen on hard times in the past few years. The result being that the original bound copy of the document – which I feel compelled to note was dedicated to the Chief Curator – no longer exists. It was apparently lent out to my uncle Peter, a man whose own literary archive resides in the backseat of his car.
The Chief Curator was able to find, after what she described as “many hours of excavation” a draft of the thesis, which included the proofreading marks of my college pal James Shiffer who, perhaps not coincidentally, no longer speaks to me. The last page bore a circular stamp at the bottom right. I initially took this to be some sort of academic notarization before coming to recognize it as a large, oddly filigreed coffee stain.
I was revisiting my thesis because I had been asked to write an appreciation of Vonnegut, a request I initially refused. I was at work on a dying novel, after all, and I hate to be distracted in the midst of such satisfying masochism. But the request lingered. It activated certain deeply rooted fanboy tendencies. I started thinking about how much Vonnegut had meant to me, and why, and whether writing about him might lead to a rendezvous. That was what I wanted. I wanted to interview him. I wanted to sit around on his porch smoking Pall Malls with him, or at least breathing in his second-hand smoke.
Note: this is the fantasy of every single Vonnegut fan.
Eighteen years ago, upon my successful expulsion from college, I was invited to stay with a friend of my girlfriend, out in Sagaponeck, Long Island. I was on the brink of breaking up with this particular girlfriend. But it was also true that these friends of hers were neighbors of Vonnegut. Friends, actually. (They called him Kurt!) So I took a bus out there and hung around for a few days, feeling poor and unsophisticated and properly caddish. In my backpack was a bound copy of my thesis.
All weekend, I fantasized about dropping it off in his mailbox, with a note explaining that I was staying just down the road. He was a busy guy, and a notorious grouch, so he wouldn’t read my thesis immediately. But eventually he’d crack the thing and read a few pages and realize, with a discernable jolt, that, by God, this young Almond fellow knew a few things, that I alone, among his legion of literary investigators had divined his essence, understood his crusade, could be trusted with his secrets. This would lead to an invite for cocktails, a long wistful discussion, many Pall Malls, and his eventual decision to adopt me.
But I chickened out.
Fast forward to early 2006. I had agreed to write about Vonnegut. But the word on the street was that no one got to Vonnegut. The best I could hope for was to get a note to his attorney, one Donald Farber. I imagined this Farber as a sour, bloodless figure, a dead ringer for Bela Lugosi, with a massive desk upon which sat a single small rubber stamp. From time to time, a small, possibly deformed assistant would place a document before him, allowing Farber the solemn pleasure of whacking a bright red “No” on each request.
Around this time, I traveled down to Hartford, Connecticut for a reading and by chance started thumbing through a local paper and suddenly saw Kurt Vonnegut staring at me. He was slated to appear at something called the Connecticut Forum, along with Joyce Carol Oates and Jennifer Weiner. This was obviously kismet, but I managed not to notice, and immediately filed this information away in the precise part of my brain that has been eroded by pot smoke. The newspaper got tossed into my own backseat archive.
A month later, while uncharacteristically cleaning my car, I came upon the ad for the Connecticut Forum, which was taking place the very next evening. I was no longer suffering under delusion that I would be able to contact Vonnegut directly. And thus, a notion now took root inside my pointy little head: I had to go see Kurt Vonnegut. I had to drive down to Hartford and ask him for an interview. I became convinced this would be my one and only shot at a face-to-face. The man was 83 years old. He had been smoking those Pall Malls (unfiltered) for longer than my parents have been alive. To put it indelicately: he would soon be dead.
The Connecticut Forum event was, naturally, sold out. But my friend Catherine, who appears to know every person of consequence in Hartford, managed to finagle me a ticket. And not just to the panel, but to the cocktail reception and dinner beforehand, at which the authors would be appearing.
I spent all that Friday composing a brief letter of introduction and rehearsing what I would say to Vonnegut. I bought a special envelope, one that would fit into his pocket. I got a haircut. For the first time in years, I had a pair of pants dry-cleaned.
About the haircut: it was the worst of my adult life. I had asked my stylist Linda to make sure the bangs weren’t too long, as I didn’t like the idea of looking shaggy for Vonnegut. I wanted him to be able to see my eyes, and specifically the nobility shining forth from them. But Linda left the bangs about a half-inch short and boxy at the corners. I looked like a Beatle, if you can imagine the Beatles reuniting for a tour at age 40 and returning (ill-advisedly) to the moptop look.
Another irrelevant detail: on the way down to Hartford I was pulled over by a cop for eating a ham sandwich.
It is illegal to eat pork on Connecticut byways.
I arrived in Hartford in an addled state. It did not help that I was attending what I would call a corporate event. Honestly, I had no idea what the Connecticut Forum was. But it was immediately apparent they have a lot of money. As soon as Catherine and I arrived at the venue we started to encounter people who had that unmistakable sheen of prosperity: tailored suits, jewelry, the subtle dermal cross-hatchings of a ski tan.
We got to talking to one such couple in the elevator.
“Are you all Vonnegut fans?” I asked.
“Not really,” the man said. He was probably in his mid-50s. “I’ve never read any of his books.”
“None of them? Not even Slaughterhouse-Five?”
He shook his head.
“What about Joyce Carol Oates?”
“What has she written?” he asked pleasantly.
And this is what I mean by a corporate event. Most of the people at this cocktail/dinner thingee were there not because they were fans of the authors, but because it was a way of supporting the arts, being a good corporate citizen.
Being a good corporate citizen means shaving an infinitesimal portion from your profits – profits that have skyrocketed as the government has dedicated itself to the financial aggrandizement of the private sector, while virtually eliminating public funding for the arts (forget the poor) – and politely tossing it at programs like the Connecticut Forum, where lots of well-heeled patrons can experience the joys of literature or, at least, a literary dog and pony show, along with noshing on some truly excellent hors d’ouerves.
I’m sounding angry here. What I felt in talking with these folks in the elevator was something closer to despair.