Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut was very important to me when I was a young man, especially his books Cat's Cradle & Slaughterhouse Five. After that his books became garrulous & somehow both over-written & under-written. Or under-imagined. His last book, Man Without a Country, is an unreadable mishmash of assertion & uninformed bad temper. I can't imagine it would have been published if it were written by someone without Vonnegut's fame. But those early books are fine & as spare as tightly stretched barbed wire. Update: I rarely read the reader comment threads at the Times, but these comments remembering favorite Vonnegut novels are very touching. That's some legacy for a writer to leave, to be remembered with such fondness. On his weblog, Jonathan Mayhew writes:
I read Vonnegut pretty intensely from age 12 to 15 or 16, and not much after that. He was one of my first literary obsessions, along with Cummings and Tolkien. Breakfast of Champions came out in 1973 when I was 13, so that represents the height of his career for me, the intersection between him near the height of his powers and me as a reader. Then the next book failed to impress me. Nothing he wrote after Breakfast seemed to have as much weight. Now I don't know whether that's because his books were not as good any more, or whether I had outgrown him in some sense. I'd have to go back and read him again, but I don't think I'd ever be able to re-capture the adolescent emotion of reading him. The fact that he may be a writer for adolescents says nothing against him. Adolescents are those most in need of writers. Things I read in those days, like Kafka, have stayed with me forever. I read Catch 22 five times before the age of 17, but not once since. It has stayed with me.
I am a little older than Jonathan & went through that necessary Vonnegut period in my early twenties. Except for Cat's Cradle, which I have taught a couple of times to freshmen, I haven't been back to read those books again. Same goes for Kerouac's On the Road & The Subterraneans. On the other hand, I didn't read Mann's The Magic Mountain -- another of those books perfect for a certain kind of intellectual teenager -- until I was fifty. More on Vonnegut from Verlyn Klinkenborg in the NY Times:
Not that Vonnegut is mainly for the young. I’m sure there are plenty of people who think he is entirely unsuitable for readers under the age of disillusionment. But the time to read Vonnegut is just when you begin to suspect that the world is not what it appears to be. He is the indispensable footnote to everything everyone is trying to teach you, the footnote that pulls the rug out from under the established truths being so firmly avowed in the body of the text. He is not only entertaining, he is electrocuting. You read him with enormous pleasure because he makes your hair stand on end. He says not only what no one is saying, but also what — as a mild young person — you know it is forbidden to say. No one nourishes the skepticism of the young like Vonnegut. In his world, decency is likelier to be rooted in skepticism than it is in the ardor of faith. So you get older, and it’s been 20 or 30 years since you last read “Player Piano” or “Cat’s Cradle” or “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Vonnegut is not, now, somehow serious enough. You’ve entered that time of life when every hard truth has to be qualified by the sense of what you stand to lose. “It’s not that simple,” you find yourself saying a lot, and the train of thought that unfolds in your mind as you speak those words reeks of desperation.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.