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Kurt Vonnegut, 1922 - 2007

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Within the next 24 hours somebody will write "Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday. So it goes." It won't be me. Vonnegut hated the trite and obvious, and he hated sentimentality.

But he didn't hate sentiment. He was comfortable with sentiment, despite living in a culture where deep emotion is sometimes treated as a social disorder.

In fact, as a writer and public figure Vonnegut was more richly suffused with sentiment than most writers, or for that matter most people, that I know. He had feelings and he wasn't afraid to use them. Anger came up often, and so did outrage. But love showed up just as often. Love, and nostalgia, and hope.

All those emotions, each one a pedal on the organ of the human soul. Vonnegut pressed every one when he wrote about politics. And he played on some others, too, like sadness. And fear. And astonishment.

Mostly he wrote fiction, of course, not political commentary. Vonnegut had a great science-fiction imagination. His sci-fi inventiveness was almost as good as that of his peer Philip K. Dick. His great heart, his social consciousness, and his engagement with the human race were, however, considerably more vibrant than Dick's (although we don't know what might have happened had Dick mastered his demons).

Kilgore Trout was his alter ego, the science fiction author who had great ideas but was a lousy writer. Vonnegut was clearly thinking of himself when he created Trout. Unlike his creation, however, he was sometimes capable of striking prose. His style was unique.

In his books, science-fiction novels like The Sirens of Titan and Cat's Cradle alternated with more "reality-based" works like Player Piano and Mother Night. Vonnegut found his thematic core in Slaughterhouse-Five, integrating sci-fi themes with his own experience as a prisoner of the Germans in World War II.

Vonnegut was a prominent atheist who was nevertheless fascinated with religion as a human phenomenon. He invented the religion of Bokononism in Cat's Cradle: "Be like a baby, the Bible say/so I be like a baby to this very day."

And he created "The Gospel From Outer Space" in Slaughterhouse-Five. That's the one where an alien decides that the flaw in the Jesus story is that Christians had apparently not understood the intended moral lesson - don't torment the outcast - but instead had come to a more perverse conclusion: "Oh boy - they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!" Because he had a powerful Dad ...

So the alien rewrites the Gospels. In this new Bible, Jesus does and says the same wonderful things, but God only adopts him at the moment of his Crucifixion, saying that "from this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!"

Kurt Vonnegut was a secular humanist who said of his newly-deceased predecessor as head of the American Humanist Society, "He's in heaven now." He said it as a joke, since it was a nonbelieving group. Yet Vonnegut also wrote: "If Christ hadn't delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn't want to be a human being."

He let nothing, including his own opinions and his profound disappointment with human flaws, stand in the way of seeing the positive wherever it could be found.

I mean no slight to the depth or profundity of Vonnegut's work when I say that I, like many others, was most struck by his novels between the ages of 13 and 15. That doesn't mean he wrote young people's books. It means he wrote books that dealt with issues that were big, deep, and profound. And for some reason, in our warped culture it's mostly young people who choose to deal with those big issues. "Adults" (as they're commonly known) seem to stop caring about them after a certain age.

Perhaps the finest way Vonnegut influenced me was by encouraging me to keep on thinking about those big issues as I moved through adulthood. And I mean the big ones: Why are we here? How will our race die? Can we be a good species?

"Be like a baby ..."

"God damn it," Vonnegut famously wrote, "you've got to be kind." That's from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which I mostly remember today for its hilarious opera scene. (Vonnegut could be very, very funny sometimes.)

The New York Times quotes a family friend as saying that Kurt Vonnegut died of brain injuries he received in a fall several weeks ago. In this insane age, we will deeply miss the insights that came from his unique - and very American - brain.

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