I discovered Kurt Vonnegut in summer of 1998. Freshmen at Sacred Heart High School had to read three books that summer. One of them was Slaughterhouse-Five. I don't remember the other two. I finished the book in three days. I matured years in those three days. I couldn't just go back to reading Michael Crichton and Stephen King. I needed more.
I spent high school devouring Vonnegut. Cat's Cradle, Timequake, The Sirens of Titan, Breakfast of Champions. Almost his entire collection of novels. Then I moved on to his collections of short stories and non-fiction. They were just as memorable as his longer works.
The two things that could best describe the person I was in high school were politics and Vonnegut. Those were my hobbies. I went to Washington looking to pursue the former and was startled to discover that everyone in this stupid town loves politics and would do anything to get ahead. I, perhaps because of the influence that Vonnegut's works had on me, wasn't capable of keeping up with them. I wouldn't blindly accept internships with legislators that I strongly disagreed with. I wouldn't suck up to get ahead. It just wasn't in me.
That discovery was disappointing. However, I also learned in college that my love for Kurt Vonnegut was far from unique. I was ok with that. I was glad that there were people who appreciated the same style of writing. The same wit. And, most importantly, people who were still capable of outrage over all the injustices in the world and in society. People who shared the same view of the insanity all around them that everyone else was conveniently ignoring. That outrage has served me well here.
Even if everyone loves Kurt Vonnegut, the connection I have with his writing remains intensely personal. His first collection of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House, is best known for its dystopian "Harrison Bergeron." It's the story that precedes it that earned my attention. "Where I Live" is a short description of his adopted hometown of Barnstable, Massachusetts. (Barnstable is one town over from my hometown of Yarmouth.) "Where I Live" describes Barnstable's aversion to anything new or fancy. Barnstable was made up of people, some of whom were obscenely wealthy, who enjoy the simple pleasures of the natural beauty that surrounded them. It's a story explaining how Cape Codders tick. It ends with a description of the last beautiful place on Earth: the church garden at St. Mary's Episcopal. The church where I was raised and confirmed. The garden where I would play freeze tag and hunt for Easter eggs.
In The Sirens of Titan, a spaceship lands in a Barnstable church parking lot. The description of the parking lot matched St. Mary's perfectly. I know that one of the joys of reading is using your imagination, but having the same mental image as the author and knowing it creates an intense connection that I will probably never have again in literature. The power of that is overwhelming.
Perhaps the ultimate example of how connected I feel to Vonnegut is in his collection of non-fiction, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons. His description of his trip to Biafra is the most hauntingly depressing thing I have ever read. But the real connection is in his work documenting the case of a Provincetown serial killer, "There's a Maniac Loose Out There." One man he interviews is a journalist with an ulcer who has seen his fair share of executions. He's uncomfortable with the Provincetown lifestyle (which was drugs and free love; this was before the days of Provincetown being a gay hotspot). He also was my namesake. My great-grandfather. Kurt Vonnegut gave me insight into a family member who died when I was eight. Who else can say that about their favorite author?
Of course, there are all pleasant coincidences that are bound to appear when you live a town over from where your favorite author did his best work. No matter. There is no man that I have never met that has affected me as much as Kurt Vonnegut. When I received word of his death today, I felt numb. God knows I want to cry for him, but that's the last thing he would want. He was very public in how he was looking forward to death. I pray that the trip was everything he could have asked for.
If you've never read Vonnegut, I'd recommend starting with his autobiographical collage Palm Sunday. You will find a man who is intensely moral, concerned with family, and who has led one of the most interesting lives imaginable. It's the best way to appreciate the man. The art can come later.
It may be predictable, but there's only one way for an appreciation of Vonnegut's life and death to end:
Kurt Vonnegut was born on November 11, 1922. He died on April 11, 2007. So it goes.