Kilgore Trout Has Left the Building: Kurt Vonnegut Dead

Sad news comes today of Kurt Vonnegut's death. Like so many people, I discovered his books when I was young -- back in the olden days, when his best-known novels were still being written -- and was much taken with his dark deadpan wit, his vigorous humanism and the flatland Midwest voice of his prose, so much in the American grain. In his prime, Vonnegut was often compared to Mark Twain -- another great favorite and formative figure in my autodidactic meanderings -- and he was certainly worthy of the comparison, not only for his wit and literary skill (which, like Twain's, was often masked by the surface simplicity of his tales), but also for the fierce outrage he voiced against the poltroons in power, the bloody-handed empire builders and backroom grease-grabbers dripping with public piety. Camus' description of Dr. Reiux in The Plague is also a perfect encapsulation of Vonnegut's work:

"The language he used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in -- though he had much liking for his fellow man -- and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromise with the truth."

I did have a tenuous, second-hand personal connection to Vonnegut: one of my best friends was a good friend of his. Donald Fiene had been one of my Russian professors at the University of Tennessee. (Yes, the same institution whose reputation is now permanently besmirched as the academic home of professional twerp and genocide enthusiast, Glenn "More Rubble Less Trouble" Reynolds. But in my day, boys and girls, the only famous Professor Reynolds at UT was l'il Glenn's father, the most worthy Charles Reynolds, a bold anti-war dissident whose arrest for protesting Richard Nixon's appearance in Knoxville was fought all the way to the Supreme Court. Such a marked contrast to the unseemly bootlicking of his unfortunate son. Charles Reynolds was (and still is) a noted religious studies professor at UT, and I -- a religious studies major at one point -- took several of his classes: as with Vonnegut, another second-hand connection, although in this case with moral idiocy, not greatness. By the way, Vonnegut also studied briefly at UT.) Fiene and Vonnegut kept up a volumnious correspondence for many years -- Vonnegut's letters often decorated with his trademark doodles -- and Fiene served as Vonnegut's literary executor for a time, especially in dealing with the Russian translations of the novels. Fiene gave Vonnegut the Eugene Debs quote that he used as the epigraph of one of his later novels: "While there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." I remember Fiene showing me the letter in which Vonnegut thanked him for the passage. (Fiene has also been a close friend of another great American artist, R. Crumb -- but that's another story.)

I can never think of Vonnegut without thinking of Fiene, with his own dark deadpan wit, vigorous humanism and pared-down, deeply American prose. Like Vonnegut, Fiene was an atheist with a great affinity for the social message of Jesus (an always irreverent respect, as exemplified by one of Fiene's favorite cartoons: Christ on the cross, gazing into the distance and proclaiming: "John, I can see your house from here!"). Like Vonnegut, Fiene faced suicide and depression in his family background, and himself waged heroic battle against serious manic-depression for many decades, as well as surviving cancer. Like Vonnegut, Fiene was sent off to war. Vonnegut, of course, was a POW in World War II, and as a captive lived through the firebombing of Dresden and the horrific aftermath, when he and his fellow prisoners helped clear away the scorched and melted dead. Fiene was in the Korean War, part of a bomber crew: a duty which came to haunt him -- how many innocents died under those loads of bombs? -- and helped fuel his later anti-war stance, and his lifelong, radical dissidence against the oppressive use of state power, in whatever form or ideological coloring. And like Vonnegut, Fiene is a great writer, whose autobiography -- which I've seen in bits and pieces -- will surely be regarded as a masterwork, a brilliant evocation of 20th century life...if it ever sees the light of day. Fiene is in poor health now, and I don't know if he ever managed the finish the book.

I'll leave to others the explication of Vonnegut's place in American literature, his role as a culture hero of the Sixties and Seventies, and the impact of his social and political criticism. For me, the most immediate significance of this news is that the friend of my ailing friend is dead -- a fact which I hope will excuse the personal tenor of this post.

UPDATE: I've just seen the NYT obit: a good piece, which also picks up on the Twain theme. Worth reading.