Remembering Kurt Vonnegut
Anytime the subject of favorite authors comes up, Kurt Vonnegut is always the first author that springs to my mind. I’ve read a lot of books over the years, enough to fill a medium sized library, and I’ve been influenced by a lot of writers. But Vonnegut influenced more than just my writing, he influenced my attitude about writing. I first read him in College back in the early 70’s. The book was Slaughterhouse Five.
I took that book in as though it was oxygen in an airless room, absorbing it through every pore in my body. I read it twice in three days. When the last page was turned after that second go-round, I plundered the University of Detroit Library bookshelves and read every Vonnegut book they had. One, Breakfast of Champions, has been a steady read for over 30 years. I’ve read it so many times, I practically know it by heart.
During that Vonnegut Summer, I was so completely there alongside Billy Pilgrim, Kilgore Trout, Eliot Rosewater and all the rest of the zany characters Vonnegut breathed life into, that I would often find myself, book in hand, nose in book, in the wrong classroom or walking down Livernois Avenue, several blocks from campus. That summer felt like one long and very pleasant acid trip.
But, beyond the pleasure of the read, came the joy of finding my lost love for writing returned. As a kid, I had written hundreds if not thousands of words over time but once that line into puberty had been crossed, the flush of hormones drowned the desire to write and my old Underwood slipped into the shadows of my room, gathering dust and silently lamenting the absence of warm fingertips upon its worn and tarnished keys. Reading Vonnegut returned that desire to write and returned it with a vengeance.
During what I think of as my ‘Vonnegut’ period, everything I wrote held the distant flavor of his words, much in the same way imitation vanilla ice cream holds the faint flavor of real vanilla bean ice cream. It took a lot of time, a lot of other-than-Vonnegut reading – not to mention having to pass through a brief, Richard Brautigan period, my second favorite and most influential author – before I began to find my own voice, my own words.
Since those college days, I have read every word of Vonnegut’s I could find and when he died on April 11, 2007, I mourned for a month or more. In some ways, I’m still mourning his passing.
Back in January of 2006, Mark Bastable set the parameters for one of the Backspace contests. Briefly, participants had to take a 400-800 word passage from a published work and supply an equal length passage of their own, written in the chosen authors style. I entered two passages for that contest, one from Brautigan, the other from Vonnegut. The Brautigan bit it pretty early one. The Vonnegut won me my first Backspace contest by a wide margin.
I dug through some old files and, in honor of Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday, I’ve entered them below. And just for S&G, I’ve turn it into a contest. The first person to pick the fake correctly, wins an eBook copy of my book Stealing The Marbles that can be read on the Mobipocket Reader. Leave your vote in the comment section, one vote per customer. In the tradition of good gamesmanship, if you own Slapstick, no peeking, if you don’t, no Googling. Oh, and to the winner, if you will, please write a review of the book on Amazon. Much appreciated.
I will add this: In trying to remember which was the fake and which the real, I had to go back and take a look at the original contest. Oddly enough, I found, nearly five years after writing it, I chose the fake this time around as the real. Strange how that goes.
Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut
Vera Chipmonk-5 Zappa sent an army of her slaves to the Empire State Building. They did not come to conquer. They came to clean. The gravity is very heavy this morning and I have taken to my bed and can not speak to them. I am an old man and I tire easily.
Melody and Isadore have gathered the slaves in the lobby. I can hear their voices as they explain what needs to be done. The heavy gravity distorts the sounds drifting in through my open door. Melody sounds like Isadore. Isadore sounds like a bear.
The slaves have come as part of an exchange I made with Vera. For half the stationary of the Continental Driving School I have in my possession and one third of my ball-point pens, the slaves will clear out the second floor of our building. Melody and Isadore wish a place of their own for when the baby arrives.
The gravity has lightened and I have ventured outside for the first time today. Chairs and desks and old machines I can no longer remember the names of have been arranged on the sidewalk across the street from our building. There is an old water cooler standing off to one side. The glass jug on the water cooler is cracked in the shape of the letter Z.
Melody has already buried one stillborn child. I have yet to find a way to explain to her that she will likely bury another. Perhaps it is the shift in gravity. Perhaps the sickness that spread across the land after those first crushing blows. Children are no longer born alive. We are the last.
The sun is going down. Thin clouds of bats stream out from the subway – jittering, squeaking, dispersing like gas. As always, I shudder. I can’t think of their noise as a noise. It is a disease of silence instead.
I write on in the light of a burning rag in a bowl of animal fat. I have a thousand candlesticks, but no candles. Melody and Isadore play backgammon on a board I painted on the lobby floor. They double and redouble each other, and laugh.
They are planning a party for my one hundred and first birthday, which is a month away. I eavesdrop on them sometimes. Old habits are hard to break. Vera Chipmonk-5 Zappa is making new costumes for the occasion – for herself and her slaves. She has mountains of cloth in her storerooms in Turtle Bay. The slaves will wear pink pantaloons and golden slippers, and green silk turbans with ostrich feather plumes, I heard Melody say.
Vera will be borne to the party in a sedan chair, I’ve heard, surrounded by slaves carrying presents and food and drink and torches, and frightening away wild dogs with the clamor of dinner bells.
I must be careful with my drinking at my birthday party. If I drank too much I might spill the beans to everybody: That the life that awaits us after death is infinitely more tiresome then this one.