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Older, and bleaker

Vonnegut's humor has become more pessimistic. 'I now give up on people,' he writes.

September 10, 2005|David L. Ulin | Special to The Times

KURT VONNEGUT doesn't want any part of contemporary culture. Or, at least, that's what he says. At 82, he's lived through some of the worst history has to offer, from the firebombing of Dresden at the end of World War II -- which he survived as a 22-year-old POW -- to the attack on the World Trade Center and what he sees as the collapse of American values beneath an avalanche of public and private greed.

"Look," he says by phone from his home in Manhattan, his voice robust but rheumy, as befits someone who has smoked for 70 years. "I think we're a very bad idea. Look at the 20th century. You've got the Holocaust, two world wars, Hiroshima. Let's just call it off."

In a certain sense, Vonnegut is exaggerating to make a point here, much as he has throughout his career. His first novel, "Player Piano," published in 1952, foresaw the dehumanizing effects of conformity and mechanization, while "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1969) -- commonly regarded as his masterwork -- spun cosmic comedy out of the author's experiences in Dresden, using the war to trigger all sorts of absurdities as his protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, literally comes "unstuck in time."

As he's grown older, however, Vonnegut's humor has become increasingly despairing, even bleak. In an essay published last year in "The Future Dictionary of America," he wrote, "Only a nut case would want to be a human being, if he or she had a choice," and in his new book, "A Man Without a Country," he takes the idea even further, noting that "Albert Einstein and Mark Twain gave up on the human race at the end of their lives, even though Twain hadn't even seen the First World War.... Like my distinct betters Einstein and Twain, I now give up on people, too."

Still, for all the pessimism of such a comment, the existence of "A Man Without a Country" suggests that there's another side to the story, that, for Vonnegut, hope continues to exert a pull. In 1997, following the publication of his 14th novel, "Timequake," he very publicly retired from the writer's trade, claiming that he no longer had anything to say.

"Johannes Brahms quit composing symphonies when he was 55. Enough!" he wrote then, in a preface. "My father was sick and tired of architecture when he was 55. Enough! American male novelists have done their best work by then. Enough! Fifty-five is a long time ago for me now." Asked why, eight years later, he's decided to make a comeback, the author barks out a wheezy laugh. "I've lived a long time," he says. "I didn't mean to live so long; it was a graceless thing to do. But what am I going to do with myself? This is what I do."

For Vonnegut, of course, retirement is a relative concept; he's hardly been inactive, after all. In 1999, he published a volume of previously uncollected short fiction from the 1950s and 1960s called "Bagombo Snuff Box," as well as two short books of ephemera, "God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian" and "Like Shaking Hands With God." He's also continued to make speeches -- often at university commencements -- and a few years ago he began to contribute to the Chicago-based progressive magazine In These Times, commenting on the increasingly dire state of the world.

Although "A Man Without a Country" has its roots in those essays and public statements, it is, at heart, a different type of project, fuller, more integrated, not a collection of loose ends so much as a testament. "Kurt is very engaged with the history of the moment," says Dan Simon, publisher of New York's Seven Stories Press, which is issuing the book. "He has passionate feelings about being alive today."

Certainly, "A Man Without a Country" is as overtly political a book as Vonnegut has written, a lament for an America that is no longer, in which, the author argues, social justice has been subsumed by war and fear. At the same time, it may be as close as Vonnegut ever comes to a memoir, with its mix of autobiography and social commentary, its reflections on topics as varied as our fossil fuel addiction and longtime heroes like Twain and labor and political leader Eugene V. Debs. In the end, Simon suggests, the best way to think of it may be as "a Tralfamadorian novel," a reference to "Slaughterhouse-Five," part of which takes place on a planet where books are written "in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars.... Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message -- describing a situation, a scene.... There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time."

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