High-School Vonnegut

Some authors you never outgrow.

Kurt Vonnegut

Our teacher was simply immense, a planet with legs. Wise, humorous, slow-moving, and obese (it was a gland problem), he had a luxury car specially built to contain him. He also designed a class to satisfy his immoderate appetite for the writings of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. This was in 1980, during the Iran hostage crisis, the year Reagan would be elected president for the first time. A few weeks into the fall term, we students wondered if Kurt Vonnegut had our teacher in mind when he thought up his recurrent character Eliot Rosewater, an untidy, corpulent Indiana multimillionaire, haunted by memories of World War II, who doles out bucketfuls of his family fortune to anyone who asks. Could they have known each other? They were both Hoosiers, after all. The thought added interest to a fleeting nude scene in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.

Given today’s closely watched classrooms, it’s incredible to think that at a public high school in Indiana in 1980, a characterful teacher was allowed to expose students to the subversive canon of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I’ll never forget reading “Harrison Bergeron,” from the short-story collection Welcome to the Monkey House. Harrison Bergeron is a brilliant, handsome 14-year-old boy in a dystopian future America, in which morons have taken control of the country, enforcing homogenized mediocrity on all citizens by law. Anyone who exceeds average intelligence, beauty, strength, or grace is compelled to offset his natural advantages with weighted pouches, shackles, and/or concentration-blowing headsets, so as not to demoralize the under-gifted. Harrison, illegal in his perfection, is imprisoned, then shot to death by the era’s “Handicapper General.” Such a story sticks with you at the idealistic age of 12. As you get older, injustice comes as less of a shock—a dull, constant throb to be dimmed by Advil and cable.

In the classroom, the graffiti-vandal irreverence of Breakfast of Champions exhilarated us—Vonnegut markered an inch-high asterisk onto a page, and said it was his “picture of an asshole” and mocked the patriotic “baroque trash” on the dollar bill. Deconstructing the dollar’s design elements, he jeered at its truncated pyramid, its eyeball, and its Latin, and wrote, “Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, ‘In nonsense is strength.’ ” Exposing that nonsense was Vonnegut’s strength.

Our teacher showed us a flickering biopic about our man. We watched Vonnegut tap on a manual typewriter and were told that he wrote slowly but in one go, never returning to edit. After a page was filled, it was done, pulled from the carriage, and put in a box. He smoked and joked about old ads that cracked him up when he was a kid in Indianapolis. One was from a store selling straw hats at a huge markdown. As I recall, the ad said, “At prices this low, you can run them through your horses and fertilize your rose garden.”

Late Wednesday, as the news arrived of Vonnegut’s death, I reflected on how fortunate we had been to read him for the first time in that loopily esoteric high-school class, before we were old enough to bring “attitude” to books. As we get older, we tend to become jaded about Big Issue subjects like the violent consequences of envy, the senselessness of war, the venality of politicians, the unfixability of genocide, the dehumanizing spread of commercialism, and the other headlines that flit across the CNN crawl, totting up the decline of the human condition.

In New York, many years later, I came to understand that a number of intellectuals thought Vonnegut was for students—for the kind of immature, emotional readers who get caught up in Dune or The Fountainhead: a “phase” author. But it’s never struck me that there is a mature, dispassionate stance on death, greed, cruelty, and human weakness that sober-minded adults ought to graduate to, after reaching some arbitrary educational high-water mark, that would elevate them beyond Vonnegut’s whimsically bleak philosophy. In 1945, as an American POW in Germany, he saw the human carnage of the Dresden firebombing. It shaped his tragicomic worldview; he never “got over it.” Should he have? Are not some offenses worthy of unending outrage, even once we’ve accepted the fact that they have occurred and will continue to? Why would the telegraphic, absurdist elements of Vonnegut’s books invalidate their originality or seriousness? Who decides that you can’t outgrow Catch-22 but you can outgrow Slaughterhouse-Five?

In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut invented a glossary of nonsense terms to expound the philosophy of Bokonon, a holy fool who hid out on the made-up island of San Lorenzo, preaching the religion of human happiness through self-delusion and boko-maru—sensual footplay. Instead of commandments, Bokonon issued calypsos, made up of sacred lies called foma. There was the karass, a group of people whose lives are entangled with each other’s “for no very logical reasons,” and who do “God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing.’ ” There was also the duprass, a world of two—a couple so devoted to each other that when one dies, the other invariably dies soon after, or even at the same moment. Then there was the granfalloon, which is a false karass. A granfalloon is a random group of people who think they are connected just because they’re from the same nation, state, street, or college. For Vonnegut, probably the most loathed granfalloon (into which my classmates and I, alas, fall) was made up of  Hoosiers.

On the plane to San Lorenzo, Jonah, the first-person narrator of Cat’s Cradle, meets a nitwit Indiana woman named Hazel Crosby, who thrills to hear that Jonah is from her home state.

” ‘I’m a Hoosier, too,’ she crowed. ‘Nobody has to be ashamed of being a Hoosier.’

’I’m not,’ I said. ‘I never knew anybody who was.’ ”

I met Kurt Vonnegut once, in 1994 at a book party in the Hamptons for Erica Jong’s Fear of Fifty. He was tall but hunched over—a sad-eyed wonderful-looking walrus. I spoke with him briefly and despite an arduous internal struggle, could not help committing Hazel’s crime and mentioning the fact of our shared Indiana background. Standing by the pool, smoking and mournful, he reminisced a bit about Indiana before sharing a reflection on the wider human condition, which, predictably,  he found depressing. “We’re all lost animals, looking for a herd,” he said.

So it goes.

Respect from the granfalloon.