A Country Without a Man

April 14, 2007

So it goes.

That’s the three-word refrain that peppers Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a mantra he drops with laconic grace every time a death occurs in the course of his narrative. Though he famously pledged never to write another novel after that one’s publication, he broke his promise time and again–happily for us. His most recent book was a 2005 collection of autobiographical essays entitled A Man Without a Country.

Vonnegut died Wednesday at the age of 84.

So it goes.

John Irving, who studied with Vonnegut (and happens to be one of my favorite novelists), said of his teacher, “He is our strongest writer, the most stubbornly imaginative. He is not anybody else, or even a version of anybody else, and he is a writer with a cause.”

Despite Vonnegut’s profoundly and at times bitterly satiric thrust, he was never preachy. Like Mark Twain, he despaired over the cruelties and stupidities of the human condition, and (again, like Twain) lovingly wrapped his fierce critiques in the best delivery system of all: humor.

Toward the end of A Man Without a Country, he wrote: “All I really wanted to do was give people the relief of laughing. Humor can be a relief, like an aspirin tablet. If a hundred years from now people are still laughing, I’d certainly be pleased.”

Yet the essence that shone through his writing, more than any other, was his gentle cheerfulness. He was truly a delightful man. Here is a passage from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965):

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

Famously agnostic (it’s hard to call him “atheistic,” given his profound reverence for the Sermon on the Mount; his term for it was “Free Thinker”), Vonnegut wrote in A Man without a Country, “If I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say ‘Kurt is up in Heaven now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”

Kurt is up in Heaven now.

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