“I am, incidentally, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that totally functionless capacity. We had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, and I spoke and said at one point, ‘Isaac is up in heaven now.’ It was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, ‘Kurt is up in heaven now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”
When I was in high-school, I had a grand-total of one decent English class. I still contend I never really learned to write at even a basic level until sophomore or junior year of college. The high-school English class that was actually worth a damn though was an American Lit course I took in 11th-grade. There wasn’t anything out of the norm as far as the coursework was concerned–A Farewell to Arms, The Crucible, The Glass Menagerie, etc.–but the teacher was an unabashed lover of literature, and that love was infectious. I’m ashamed to say the guy’s name is escaping me now, since he had such a profound effect on me, but I think he’d prefer the impact of his teaching stick with me more so than his name.
In that class I had my first taste of Vonnegut. It was Harrison Bergeron from Welcome to the Monkey House, and it knocked my socks off. It was more imaginative and subversive than anything I’d been exposed to, especially in a school setting. So a year later, in my 12th-grade humanities class, when I was tasked with a book-report, I sought Vonnegut out and picked up Breakfast of Champions from the school library… and never read it. I was very lazy and preoccupied with the things that preoccupy high-school seniors in lieu of the finest novels of the 20th century. I don’t remember what I ultimately did for the book report, but I’d guess I either read the jacket description of BoC and bullshitted the whole thing from there, or I phoned in a report on Huckleberry Finn or something else I’d read a dozen times since 4th grade.
But my laziness later proved virtuous. I never returned the book to the library. At some point, my dog got a hold of it and made a snack out of a chunk of the cover. Eventually, after I’d graduated, I was cleaning my room and figured it was too mangled and I’d never read it, so I tossed it in the trash. You know, because I was a fucking idiot. But again, I was lazy, so the bag of trash sat in my room and a friend noticed the book near the top of the heap. He asked if he could take it, and I obliged. Within no time, before he’d even finished it, he was raving about the book, picking out passages to show me and using every opportunity to point out what a big dumb asshole I was for throwing it in the garbage. So as soon as he was done, I ungifted it from him, because I’m a big dumb asshole.
Needless to say, I read it and–cliche as it sounds–it changed my life. My perception of storytelling was completely turned upside-down. At that point, I became a fervent Vonnegut fan, and, eventually, I even became an okay writer, something I can’t not credit (blame?) Kurt Vonnegut for.
Last month, my nephew turned 15. For Christmas, we bought him Catcher in the Rye, and he loved it. So for his birthday, I decided it was time for some Vonnegut and gave him Cat’s Cradle. I hope he’s not too lazy and preoccupied to read it, though I’m the last person who can blame him if he is. And when my son Oscar is old enough, I’ll try to give him the same gift and hope again. I’ll fuck up a lot as a parent, but if I pull that one off, I’ll consider myself at least a little successful.
In Breakfast of Champions, Dwayne Hoover asks, “What is the purpose of life?” to which Vonnegut’s alter-ego Kilgore Trout replies, “To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you fool.” I would add that Kurt Vonnegut was the voice.