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Kurt Vonnegut Gets in the Last Word

Authors: With his final book, 'Timequake,' the elder statesman of literary humor turns a corner from dread to acceptance of the world.

October 02, 1997|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Kurt Vonnegut is having a good time. Sitting on a couch amid the working clutter of his editor's mid-Manhattan office, he lights an unfiltered Pall Mall and laughs, a propulsive, wheezy explosion.

At 74, he looks good, his curly mop of hair still mostly brown, hazel eyes large and slightly rheumy behind his glasses, like two raw eggs floating in the middle of his face. When he smiles, which he does often, his eyes widen in something close to wonder and the lines of his flesh recede, leaving the impression of an overgrown child. The most prominent reminder of his age is his mustache, graying and stained nicotine yellow in places, which makes him look astonishingly like his hero, Mark Twain.

Given Vonnegut's status as the elder statesman of our literary humorists, it seems strange that his high spirits should come as a surprise. Yet for all his gentle wit and "gaily mournful" perspective (as he once wrote of his fictional alter ego), in recent years this condition has been more the exception than the rule. Ever since the publication of his 10th novel, "Deadeye Dick," in 1982, Vonnegut's books have seemed oddly burdened, at times hopeless, what he once called "sardonic fable[s] in a bed of gloom."

In the 1991 essay collection "Fates Worse Than Death," he wrote at length about his own disappointment and disillusionment, touching on a suicide attempt he made in the mid-1980s, and noting that for "whatever reason, American humorists or satirists or whatever you want to call them, those who choose to laugh rather than weep about demoralizing information, become intolerably unfunny pessimists if they live past a certain age."

With his new book, "Timequake," however, Vonnegut appears to have turned some kind of corner, if not coming to acceptance, then moving toward an accommodation with the world. "I don't like what my country has become," he says, "and the news about what we're doing to the life-support system on this planet is perfectly awful. But I have grandchildren, which gives me a vested interest in the future."

Vonnegut's change of heart could not have come at a more opportune moment. Although he is still very much a fixture in literary Manhattan, where he lives with his second wife, photographer Jill Krementz, "Timequake," he insists, is his final book, the swan song to his nearly 50-year career. "Why is it my last book?" he asks. "Well, you can ask an insurance actuary, if you want. I'll be 75 on Nov. 11, and that's enough, I think. I owed Putnam one more book on a contract, and I wanted to honor it, but there are plenty of books. No more books need to be written as there have already been so many wonderful books."

Intermingling bits of fiction with autobiographical reminiscences, "Timequake" has at its center "a sudden glitch in the space-time continuum" called a timequake, which turns the universe back from 2001 to 1991 and forces everyone to relive that decade. Originally written as a novel, it was reconstructed after Vonnegut decided it did not work, and is as moving and compelling a work as he has produced in years. "It was what a novel is supposed to be," he explains, "a conventional novel. But I decided I wasn't saying anything I wanted to say. Actually, Putnam was perfectly satisfied with it. They'd accepted it, and it was in the catalog, but it seemed like a lie. I can't tell you why it seemed like a lie, but it seemed untrue, and I didn't want to end my career that way--like Mick Jagger, so to speak."

The decision to retire, is an unusual one, for literary writers have traditionally chosen to peter out rather than walk away. But, Vonnegut says, it is due to a variety of factors, not least the fact that writing books has become "too hard." Another reason is what he sees as the demise of reading as "a middle-class entertainment" in the age of the Internet. "When I started out," he recalls, "which was essentially when I quit my job at General Electric in 1950, it was possible to make a living as a freelance writer of fiction, and live out of your mailbox, because it was still the golden age of magazines, and it looked as though that could go on forever.

"The first story I sold to the Saturday Evening Post, I came home from work, and I had an upright piano inside the front door, and on the music stand of the piano, with a candle on either side of it, was a check for $1,500. General Electric was then paying me $5,000 a year. I had a wife and two kids. My goodness, I thought, this is interesting. Then television, with no malice whatsoever--just a better buy for advertisers--knocked the magazines out of business."

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It's fascinating to hear Vonnegut discuss his literary origins in such conventional terms, for he remains best known as one of the quintessential writers of the 1960s, a countercultural figure responsible for helping to alter the way an entire generation thought about literature.

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