Opinion » Bill Cope

Vonnegut Feeling

The blackest humor is when nothing's funny


For today's offering, gentle reader, I'd like to do a book review. I've never done a book review for this column. Years ago, when I was attending various schools and had English teachers around to ruin my weekends and Christmas vacations, I did book reviews regularly. Only we called them "reports."

It's such a sophisticated thing, isn't it ... writing about someone else's writing? You don't have to be a movie maker to review movies, or a musician to review an orchestra's performance. But to review someone else's writing, you have to be a writer, yes? And if you can't write at least as well as the person you're reviewing, well just who do you think you are, anyway?

Just kidding. I hope you don't expect me to write as well as Kurt Vonnegut, because I've chosen to review his last book. I must explain something before I start, though, and it has to do with why I haven't, in 11 years of writing for BW, done a book review. That being: I haven't read many books in the last 11 years. Hardly any. I used to go through books like they were pieces of pie. Big, fat books.

But then I started writing a lot and stopped reading. Whenever I'm reading something and writing something at the same time, my writing starts to look like what I'm reading. I'm a tone sponge. I soak up other writers' mannerisms like a brand-new Brawny. I don't mean it to happen. It just does.

I don't like it. It's embarrassing. When I read Faulkner, I started writing somewhat like Faulkner. When it was Ray Bradbury, I couldn't stop sounding vaguely Bradbury-ish. And Vonnegut? Holy Bokonon, I've never been able to shake the color of Vonnegut out of my prose. Read Cat's Cradle, The Sirens of Titan or Breakfast of Champions ... then anything I've ever written. You'll detect Mr. Vonnegut's footprints all over. Big, Hoosier Vonnegut footprints stomped deeply into my impressionable sands.

Vonnegut is better at one thing than any other modern American writer: cynicism. He is to cynicism what King is to horror or Louis L'Amour is to cowpokes. In the earliest pages of his last book, he passes on a joke, childishly simple on the surface, but one that well characterize a true-blue cynic's view of nearly everything: Q. "What's the white stuff in bird poop?" A. "Why, that's bird poop, too."

Vonnegut didn't make me a cynic. I'm sure cynics are born that way, not converted. But he has articulated so simply what a generation of cynics made so complicated, and he was funny doing it. As funny as that other great American cynic, Mark Twain. As funny as anyone I've read. He puts despair and giggles together as naturally as a death in the family and getting drunk at the wake.

But Bill, you gasp in dismay, there is so much going on right now. Awful stuff! Terrible stuff! Children being slaughtered in Middle East villages! World leaders behaving like video game war lords! Benighted mobs invoking the name of primitive deities as they tear entire nations asunder! So Bill , you ask in bewilderment, how can we dawdle on a piddling book review when there are monstrous events to be discussed?

Ah, gentle reader, I have my reasons. There is such awful terribleness going on at present--and so much of it either instigated by my motherland or with her blessing--that increasingly, I'm having trouble thinking of anything remotely original to say about it all, let alone funny. If you were to think of humor as a cheery fire on a cold winter night, I am in danger of being doused.

So I turned to my old guide. My old North Star, Vonnegut. We all need a bearings--check now and then, even cynics. By the title of his last book alone, A Man Without A Country, I figured he'd already reached a place I'll be soon. I figured he might let me know what I'm in for. Invigorate me, Kurt. Recharge my batteries. Renew me and show me that even in the shadow of such darkness, there are still giggles to be had.

That's a lot to ask of an 84-year old cynic.

In most of his two-dozen other books, Vonnegut used the truth in fiction to make his statement. In Slaughterhouse Five, he transforms his horrific experience of being at ground zero in the fire-bombing of Dresden into a time-travel Mobius strip of pain and pleasure. In Galapagos, he describes the end of humanity through the voice of a ghost, dead (if not gone) for a million years.

In A Man Without A Country, he describes himself--the spirit within the ghost, within Kilgore Trout and Billy Pilgrim. He describes where he's ended up and how he got there. It's a small book. A slim book. If he were happier with the situation, you wonder if his last book wouldn't be bigger. Fatter. He describes a man deeply disappointed in how the human animal turned out. That's the risk you take being a cynic: few happy endings.

At first reading, the book seems like 145 pages of non sequiturs, skipping from furtive peeks through autobiographical peepholes to axe attacks on current culture and politics as abruptly as a cat-chased squirrel changes directions. But later (because you're thirsty for more and can't realistically expect another book, so you give it another read), you come to realize they aren't non sequiturs at all. He's prepping the audience for his last punchline. He's lining up all the pieces for one more gag, the last joke in his last book.

Was the payoff worth the set-up? You tell me. "Humor is a way of holding off how awful life can be, to protect yourself. Finally, you get just too tired, and the news is too awful, and humor doesn't work anymore."

I warned you. "Few happy endings," remember?

But a happy ending isn't everything. A lot of funny stuff can happen in the setup, in the twists and turns that lead to that ultimate cynicism. I think Vonnegut knows this. As dark and dire as he portrays the outcome, I think he knows the giggles you get on the way there make the trip worth taking. He didn't say as much, but he must know it. He's the one who wrote the book, after all.

Which includes: "When you get to my age, if you get to my age, you will find yourself asking your own children ... 'What is life all about?' I put my big question about life to my son ... 'Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.'"

So were you renewed, Bill? Were you recharged, you ask, hopefully?

Yes, gentle reader, in a small, slim way. I now know I could do worse than have those big, Hoosier Vonnegut footprints stomped deeply into my impressionable sands.