Kurt Vonnegut’s Last Laugh: Guest Post by Robert T. Tally Jr.

By | March 15, 2012

'Five years ago, on March 14, 2007, the much beloved American satirist Kurt Vonnegut fell down the front steps of his New York City brownstone, smashing his head on the sidewalk; four weeks later, he died.  So it goes.

 Vonnegut made this last phrase immortal by enshrining it as the appropriate response to news of someone’s death.  In his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut introduced the the Tralfamadorian view of time, in which “all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist.”  From this perspective, a corpse is just a person who appears to be in bad shape at a particular moment, but is doing just fine at other, coexisting moments.  “Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead,” writes Vonnegut in the voice of Billy Pilgrim, “I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes’.”  The fifth anniversary of Vonnegut’s death, therefore, might be a good occasion for recalling his humor and wisdom in those earlier moments, still very much present today in his books.

In his thorough, well-researched biography And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life, Charles J. Shields mentions that Vonnegut was convinced that one day he would be killed by a dog, and a frightfully canine near-death experience is depicted in Breakfast of Champions (1973).  Shields then suggests that the cause of death was indeed Vonnegut’s little dog, who managed to trip him with its leash as they ventured out for an afternoon walk.  However, the eminent Vonnegut scholar Jerome Klinkowitz has said that, according to friends, the proximate cause of Vonnegut’s death must have been his wife, Jill Krementz, who would not allow the 84-year-old to smoke indoors: supposedly, he lost his balance on the front steps after arising too quickly from stubbing out a Pall Mall.

Ironically, perhaps, Vonnegut’s relationship to cigarettes may have been more healthy than his marriage.  He and Krementz (his second wife) filed for divorce no fewer than three times, each time reconciling for one reason or another, but Vonnegut loved to joke about suing the tobacco companies for false advertising.  Cigarettes were supposed to kill you, he’d say, but I’ve been smoking unfiltered Pall Malls for over fifty years now.  Whether dog, wife, or cigarettes are ultimately responsible, Vonnegut’s downfall seems appropriately absurd.  Here was a man who had lived through World War II and the fire-bombing of Dresden, a man who had survived his mother’s suicide, his sister’s tragic death, his son’s terrifying schizophrenia, and other familial and professional challenges, and his final bow comes as a macabre pratfall as in a Vaudevillian slapstick routine?  Absurd.

Pointing out the absurdity of everyday life was perhaps Vonnegut’s greatest contribution to American literature.  Whereas Hannah Arendt had marveled at the banality of evil, Vonnegut duly recorded the banality of … well, everything.  His novels poked fun at science and technology, commerce and warfare, patriotism and progress, sickness and health.  Vonnegut had an especially sharp wit when it came to the American Dream, that much admired and pursued hope which so often leads to disappointment and despair.  As Vonnegut pointed out, behind this dream lies the haunting barb, “If you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?”  Those who have not managed to achieve the dream must consider themselves failures, and those who have had even a great deal of success worry that they haven’t done or received enough.

Vonnegut’s insights may have hit quite close to home, not just with his fans who were weary of the triumphalism and self-congratulatory hubris of American consumer culture, but with the author himself.  Shields, for instance, notes that Vonnegut often felt unappreciated as a writer, notwithstanding his strong sales and ardent following.  He was reportedly bothered that his dictionary contained no “Vonnegut, Kurt” entry, but “Kerouac” and others were in there.  Vonnegut has inspired, and continues to inspire, generations of readers with his wry humor and bittersweet musings, but even at the pinnacle of his professional success, he felt unappreciated.

That too may have been a ruse, as Vonnegut’s fears seemed to discount his unquestionably large fan base.  Vonnegut himself was rather elusive, all the more so owing to his deceptively simple syntax and diction, as well as his friendly and engaging narrative voice in both his fiction and nonfiction.  In his brilliant 1961 novel Mother Night, Vonnegut warns us not to trust the word of a writer: “To say he was a writer is to say that the demands of art alone were enough to make him lie, and to lie without seeing any harm in it.”  Coming from such an imaginative writer as Vonnegut, this can only be viewed as a caveat to his own readers, many of whom would embrace this artful artificer as the ultimate truth-teller.   An extremely funny joke, when you think about it.

Five years after he “became just another wisp of undifferentiated nothingness” (as it is named in Deadeye Dick [1982]), Vonnegut’s novels are as popular as ever, and Vonnegut’s persona as a straight-talking, down-to-earth, everyman social critic—as opposed to the skilled fabricator of nuanced foma, as “lies” or “harmless untruths” are called in Cat’s Cradle (1963)—continues to form the image most beloved by readers.  Yet Vonnegut gets the last laugh, as both his detractors and his admirers are fooled into imagining, respectively, an overrated hack or a undervalued genius, whereas Vonnegut remains what he always was: a tragicomic performer, as willing to tell a story as he is to take a tumble, and always just for the hell of it.'

—  Robert T. Tally Jr., author of Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel: A Postmodern Iconography. Read our digital preview of the book by clicking on the widget below.

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