Wednesday, April 11, 2007

God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut

I suppose it can't come as a great surprise, given that he was 84 years old and smoked unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes, but it sent a shock through my system when I read the news just a few minutes ago that Kurt Vonnegut died tonight.

And no, it wasn't the unfiltered Pall Malls that did him in. It was, apparently, the result of brain injuries sustained after a fall a few weeks ago.

There's only been a handful of writers who have managed to captivate me so quickly in so little time. Douglas Coupland is one, Chuck Palahniuk is another. And yes, Kurt Vonnegut is on that list as well.

I'd known the name for years, but didn't become acquainted with his material until just a few short years ago when I picked up a copy of "Timequake" at a second hand bookstore.

To say I fell in love with the way he used words would be an understatement.

In 2005 I read a stage adaption of four of his short stories called, "Welcome to the Monkey House" -- named after Vonnegut's short story collection that had contained the original stories.

I went on to direct a production of that show in 2006, all the while looking for other Vonnegut material I could get my hands on. I tracked down a copy of the "Monkey House" collection, as well as what is probably his best known book, "Slaughterhouse Five," which I devoured in a couple of evenings. I fell madly, desperately, psychotically in love with "Breakfast of Champions" which might very well be the largest, broadest, most successful satire I've ever set my eyes on, being nothing more than a great big, "What the fuck is wrong with you?" letter to America. Penned in the 1970s, "Champions" remains incredibly relevent today.

But then, that's the way of it with Vonnegut's material. The material I worked with in the "Monkey House" production was originally written in the 1950s and the 1960s, and except for a certain flavour to the language and setting that kept it locked in the era in which it was created, the contant was just as relevent to the 21st century as it was halfway through the last one.

It's something that plenty of writers can, and should, be jealous of -- the ability to write something that can live on beyond the time in which it was created. Something so universal that it can speak to the hearts of those who weren't even born when it first appeared in bookstores.

I have hard time thinking of anyone more deserving of that sort of success than Mr. Vonnegut. If there was one thing that shone through in his work, it was a fantastic love of mankind. Sure, he poked his finger at our faults, but it wasn't to make us feel bad or guilty, it was because he knew we could be better than we are. And should always strive to be.

About this he was always very clear.

In his later years, he would tell a story -- and, in fact, that story would find its way into "Timequake" -- about the answer his son gave him when he asked the ultimate of philsophical questions: "Why are we here?"

What his son said -- a son who clearly had the same love for mankind that defined his father -- was this: "We are here to help each get through this thing, whatever it is."

I can think of no better life philosphy than that one.

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut. You will be missed.


Sheryl-Lynn said...

Does this mean that we will be drinking another round of styrofoam melting Wild Turkey?

Todd said...

Nah, I just chain-smoked last night in honour of Kurt.

Funny, I had forgotten that you were involved in the Hunter tribute evening. Guess that shows you what the Wild Turkey did to me that evening.