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Kurt Vonnegut: 1922-2007

His popular novels blended social criticism, dark humor

April 12, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Kurt Vonnegut, an American cultural hero celebrated for his wry, loonily imaginative commentary on war, apocalypse, technology, materialism and other afflictions in "Slaughterhouse-Five" and other novels, has died. He was 84.

One of the last of a generation of great American novelists of World War II, Vonnegut died Wednesday night in New York City.

Vonnegut suffered brain injuries in a fall several weeks ago, said his wife, photographer Jill Krementz. He had homes in Manhattan and Sagaponack, N.Y.

"There was never a kinder and, at the same time, wittier writer to be with personally," author Tom Wolfe, a friend and admirer of Vonnegut's, told The Times. "He was just a gem in that respect. And as a writer, I guess he's the closest thing we had to a Voltaire. He could be extremely funny, but there was a vein of iron always underneath it, which made him quite remarkable.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 13, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 65 words Type of Material: Correction
Kurt Vonnegut photos: In the obituary of author Kurt Vonnegut in some editions of Thursday's Section A, two of the photos were incorrectly credited. The photo of Vonnegut sitting on a park bench was taken by Jennifer S. Altman for The Times, not by Diane Bondareff of the Associated Press; the photo of the author with his wife was taken by Bondareff, not by Altman.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Vonnegut obituary: In the obituary of novelist Kurt Vonnegut that appeared in Thursday's Section A, the last name of novelist Jay McInerney was misspelled as MacInerny.

"He was never funny just to be funny," Wolfe added.

An obscure science fiction writer for two decades before earning mainstream acclaim in 1969 with "Slaughterhouse-Five," Vonnegut was an American original, often compared to Mark Twain for a vision that combined social criticism, wildly black humor and a call to basic human decency. He was, novelist Jay MacInerny once said, "a satirist with a heart, a moralist with a whoopee cushion."

Although he was disdained by some critics who thought his work was too popular and accessible, his fiction inspired volumes of scholarly comment as well as websites maintained by young fans who have helped keep all 14 of his novels in print over a 50-year career. Five of his novels have made the leap into films.

He is "together with John Hawkes and Gunter Grass ... the most stubbornly imaginative" of writers, novelist John Irving once wrote of Vonnegut. "He is not anybody else, or even a version of anybody else, and he is a writer with a cause."

His novels, which include "The Sirens of Titan," "Cat's Cradle," "Mother Night" and "Breakfast of Champions," introduced a revolving cast of odd characters, from the downtrodden visionary Billy Pilgrim to Kilgore Trout, the unsuccessful writer who was Vonnegut's alter ego.

Vonnegut was also an essayist, playwright and short-story writer, whose shorter pieces were collected in such volumes as "Welcome to the Monkey House" (1968), "Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons" (1974) and "Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s" (1991).

"Slaughterhouse-Five" was a book he tried but failed to write for 25 years. An agile mix of fantasy and Vonnegut's World War II experiences, it features time traveler Pilgrim who, like Vonnegut, survived the Allied firebombing of Dresden.

Unorthodox in structure and patently antiwar, the novel resonated with a rebellious younger generation. Vonnegut became an icon of the countercultural 1970s and his book became a milestone of postmodern American literature, unequaled in force or artistry by any of his later novels.

"He writes about the most excruciatingly painful things," Michael Crichton observed in a review of "Slaughterhouse-Five" for the New Republic. "His novels have attacked our deepest fears of automation and the bomb, our deepest political guilts, our fiercest hatreds and loves. Nobody else writes books on these subjects; they are inaccessible to normal novelistic approaches."

He made no pretense of his intentions: He was a public writer -- one who directly addressed some of the most vexing issues of his day.

"My motives are political," he once told Playboy magazine. "I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society.... Mainly, I think they should be -- and biologically have to be -- agents of change."

On another occasion he explained that his goal in writing novels was to "catch people before they become generals and Senators and Presidents" and "poison their minds with humanity. Encourage them to make a better world."

A lonely child

A fourth-generation German American, Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis on Nov. 11, 1922.

Although he had an older brother, Bernard, and a sister, Alice, Vonnegut was often lonely as a child. His mainstay growing up was a black woman named Ida Young, the family cook. He suggested that the "intolerable sentimentality" that some critics saw in his writing was owed to Young, who spent long hours reading to him from an anthology of poems about undying love, faithful dogs and humble, happy homes.

The son and grandson of architects, he grew up in prosperity until the Depression struck and his father, Kurt Sr., went 10 years without a commission. The family finances were so abysmal that his mother, Edith, who had been born to affluence, had to sell the family china. Vonnegut would later say his parents left a legacy of pacifism and irreverence as well as "bone-deep sadness," and in much of his later fiction his characters would be afflicted by unemployment and the subsequent loss of status and purpose.

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