Stalking Kurt Vonnegut, and so on

In 1973, on a road trip to see Nixon's America, I decided to seek out the country's greatest living writer. And I found him. Hi ho.
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Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 1922-2007

In 1973, on a road trip to see Nixon's America, I decided to seek out the country's greatest living writer. And I found him. Hi ho.

I attended The Evergreen State College in the early 1970s. Even then, the campus was a haven of political correctness, but it also offered an out. It was then one of the only colleges in America to offer independent contracts that allowed you study pretty much whatever you wanted. So in the fall of 1973, three of us Greeners bought a Ford van and decided to venture forth on a road trip to the deepest heart of Nixon's America to write, draw, and photograph what we found there. At the very time many American students were finding their way to the ass-end of nowhere on Budd Inlet, the place know as Evergreen, the Woodstock of higher education, we decided to see what the rest of the country was doing. And get college credit for doing it. I decided to become a kind of roving correspondent for The Cooper Point Journal, the school's newspaper, though I think I only filed two or three stories in the next three months. Like Mark Twain during his reportorial sojourn in Hawaii, I could always find reasons not to send the next dispatch. We started from Portland and circled the entire country – across the Great Plains and Midwest to New England and New York, south to the Florida Keys, along the Gulf to New Orleans, across Texas and eventually home. We ventured forth in the great tradition of counterculture road trippers, from Lewis and Clark to Kerouac and Kesey. It was a rite of passage common in our generation, hardly unique, but one of the challenges it posed was: What do you do with all that freedom? The answer to that came to us in the wee hours during an all-night, No-Doze and coffee-fueled driving jag across one of the Dakotas. It hit me in the dark hours when phantoms flickered in my peripheral vision: If I could meet anyone in America, it would be Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I think there must be a lot of downsides to being a counterculture hero. One of them is your fans. But somehow being on the Great Plains, driving all night, trying to get something on the radio other than the song that became our de facto road trip anthem, "Ramblin' Man" by the Allman Brothers, it seemed so right, so logical to use our freedom – our wheels, the endless time on our hands – to seek out America's greatest living novelist. He was the Mark Twain of our time, the witty cynic who'd exposed the insanity of war. On the lonely plains that night, I felt like Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse 5. I hadn't come "unstuck" in time like Pilgrim, but unstuck in place. Why not? I asked myself. Why not? I had read all of Vonnegut's books to that point. Like most people, I started with Slaughterhouse 5, then jumping backward in time to read his previous, including Player Piano, Mother Night, Cat's Cradle, and The Sirens of Titan. Vonnegut's new book had just come out: Breakfast of Champions. I had wanted to like it, but found it below par. I wanted to ask him about it. In high school I read a lot of modern American fiction, both in and out of class. At my prep school, it was pretty much expected that you had some knowledge of Updike, Roth, Bellow, Cheever, and Mailer. I had never been able to worship at these shrines. I had been blown away by John Barth's Sot-Weed Factor, but it was one of those anomalies of genius that didn't really fit in anywhere. I had pretty much given up on modern fiction until Slaughterhouse 5 came along. It had that same quirky genius, but it was short and funny and relevant, especially for an 18-year-old looking at the distinct possibility of being drafted into a war I opposed. The book was also a revelation that a man of my father's generation could be morally conflicted about a war, much less World War II. We boomers were raised by men, few of whom expressed any doubts that their war was just. Nazis bad, America good, end of story. But Vonnegut had been in the belly of the beast, had seen the worst, had lived through the firebombing of Dresden and wrote about it. He could be funny and profound. He could say something profoundly important and make it sound like an off-hand joke. Plus, he smoked Pall Malls – serious cigarettes – and admitted that it was a socially acceptable form of suicide. I had to like a writer who was killing himself. It's what real writers did, even if, in Vonnegut's case, he was unsuccessful. He lived to the age of 84 and died this week from complications after a fall. To cut a long story short, we finally hit the East Coast. We'd read in one of his books that Vonnegut lived in Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. We arrived one dark and rainy night, found a phone booth, and I got out to check the Barnstable phone directory. There was only one Vonnegut in it, not a "K" Vonnegut, but I called anyway. A woman answered and I asked if Kurt Vonnegut was there. No, she said, he doesn't live here anymore. She said she was his ex-wife. I was afraid she'd hang up so I quickly explained that I was a student journalist and had travelled all the way across America from Olympia, Wash., to interview him for the school newspaper. She told me that Vonnegut hated to give interviews. But she finally took pity on me and gave me his address in New York, with the admonishment: "Don't tell him who gave it to you!" I figured she was either being really nice to me or really mean to him. Maybe both. It didn't matter. We headed for New York. In New York, we stayed with one of my road mates' friends, but we also visited my aunt and uncle, who lived on the Upper East Side. My aunt was an actress, then in soap operas, and I mentioned our mission to see Vonnegut. Shortly thereafter, we set out to find him. We found the address and stood around nervously on the street outside, wondering what to do. Do we just buzz or knock? Do we wait until he comes out? Will we alarm him by accosting him on the mean streets of pre-Guiliani Manhattan? Then someone checked a plastic garbage sack on the curb and through it we could make out an envelope with Vonnegut's name on it. "It's Kurt Vonnegut's garbage!" We considered stealing it but it seemed like bad karma. Instead, I was emboldened to go into the entryway and ring his bell. Which I did. I could tell which apartment he was in because he had neatly snipped his name from a check and slid it into the name slot. No one answered. I started to write him a note to leave in his mailbox. Suddenly, the outside door swung open and a man came in. He was carrying two bags of groceries and trying to maneuver into a space – with me in it – the size of a phone booth. Between the grocery bags, I recognized a famous droopy face and mustache. Without offering to help with the bags – hey, it was New York, and he probably thought I was mugger – I launched into my pitch, telling him that I'd come all the way from Olympia, Wash., just to interview him for the school paper and – I don't remember what I said, but I tried to be both professional and pleading and make myself small so he could get by me without dropping his groceries. He apologized profusely and kept saying that no, he was sorry, very sorry, but no ... no ... no ... and then he was gone into the building. I was crushed, but also exhilarated. I'd driven 3,000 miles for a brush-off. On the way back to our apartment, I picked up Time magazine. In it was a picture of Vonnegut and Jacqueline Susanne yukking it up on some talk-show. Oh, the humanity. At my aunt's that evening, she informed me that her agent knew Vonnegut's literary agent and that he'd arranged for me to get a phone interview with the author early the next morning. Like Vonnegut's ex, he'd said that the novelist hated to give interviews, but I'd have time to ask two or three questions. Suddenly, I felt both excited and sick. I'd wanted to do this on my own but had been rejected. Now, someone with pull had set the whole thing up and I thought: So Vonnegut isn't willing to talk to some kid in his foyer who's traveled 3,000 miles, but he will talk to a guy he doesn't know and hasn't met as a favor for his agent. The fact that I was both of these kids didn't make any difference. I was hurt. But I was going to get an interview, no matter how much he hated to give them. So I did what every young writer does in such a situation: I proceeded to get drunk. Drunker than drunk. Stuporously drunk. Gin and sloe-gin drunk. Carpet-fuzz-in-the-teeth drunk. I regained consciousness on the floor the next morning, having passed out while trying to french kiss the carpet. I was so hung over I could not lift my head. At the appointed time, I called Kurt Wateverhisnameis while lying flat on the floor with the receiver placed next to my head so I would not have endure the touch of the phone to my ear. I asked him a couple of questions, which I don't remember at the moment except that I wondered if the average Joe in Indiana could figure out what the heck Breakfast of Champions was about. I had planned to ask him about it this way. Mr. Vonnegut, I would begin, "Breakfast of Champions was called pretentious and self-indulgent, and a host of other things – was it?" No wonder he hated interviews. I do remember he answered my questions briefly and politely and that my questions and his answers were both unremarkable. I wrote up the story of my quest to interview Vonnegut using a 1939 Royal typewriter that I had lugged along on the trip– really, the fourth companion in that van, so huge and heavy was it. I was sitting atop a parking garage in downtown Atlanta when I wrote it. I sent it off to the school paper, and we headed south to Key Largo on the hunt for the spirit of Bogie and Bacall. When I returned to Evergreen a month or more later, I discovered I was a campus celebrity. The Vonnegut piece had run on the cover of The Cooper Point Journal, and now faculty members sought me out and students approached me with awe because I had talked to Vonnegut. While the story was no gift to journalism, it helped my campus journalism career. It got me the job of editor of the paper, though I was later nearly impeached for running an Olympia beer ad that referenced Playboy. I'd also learned lessons that still stands me in good stead. To take risks going after a story and get it any way you can, even if it means accepting favors or imposing on ex-wives. I also developed some cynicism that helped my writing and reporting. I could read Vonnegut now with less awe and with the sense that he was just another guy who brought in his own groceries and didn't want to be bothered by strangers at the door. Looking now at Vonnegut's literary career, I think it divides into two halves, the one before Slaughterhouse 5 and the one after. The first half I think is best, the second spoiled by his fame. Vonnegut's literary alter ego was Kilgore Trout. In Vonnegut's fictional universe, Trout pounded out imaginatively bad science fiction – a kind of literary Ed Wood. In the 1950s, Vonnegut's first novels were published as paperback originals, the kind you'd find in a drugstore rack. They say that you can't truly appreciate Charles Dickens unless you've read his books in their original serial form. I envy readers in the '50s and early '60s who might have stumbled upon Player Piano or The Sirens of Titan as a cheesy paperback. You would have opened it expecting a few hours escape, but instead you would have been entertained by a real writer playing with big ideas in a low-brow artform. It would have been like opening a pack of Velveeta and getting Gorgonzola instead. Once Vonnegut became famous, the expectations became too much. His books were packaged as big bestsellers, serious fiction, and in that context his methods seemed more like a schtick. Vonnegut seemed to thrive when the expectations were low. After I returned from the road trip, I visited a small bookstore on Rainier Avenue South. One day, while browsing the shelves, I decided to see if it had any Vonnegut books. There, like a little gem in the science-fiction section, was a paperback original of The Siren's of Titan. It was a "Dell First Edition," 1959, with a cover price of 35 cents. It pictured a curvy chick in a tight outfit. It was like finding David Copperfield in the original magazine installments. It's my favorite Vonnegut relic, maybe the only copy of any of his books that isn't deep-sixed in my storage unit. The book reminds me of the original Vonnegut who cleared the bar every time he jumped. Of the guy who could write like hell without being bothered by guys like me.


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.

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