The voice on the other end of the phone was gravelly but bright, interrupted every so often by a phlegmy smoker’s laugh. Last November, when Sophie’s Choice author William Styron died, EW called up Kurt Vonnegut, his friend of 40 years. ”We liked each other a lot,” he said. ”And I guess not many of our generation of American war writers are left. Maybe just me and Mailer.”
Sadly, now there’s just Mailer. Vonnegut — the 84-year-old best-selling sage and statesman of the ’60s counterculture — died April 11 of brain injuries sustained after a fall several weeks ago. ”So it goes” is his inevitable and inescapable epitaph, a phrase embodying the breezy resignation and sorrowful én of Vonnegut’s fictional voice, and it’s taken from Slaughterhouse-Five, a 1969 ode to the futility of war that forever bonded him to young readers everywhere. ”Usually famous writers have only one generation they speak to, but Vonnegut was a great American voice to three,” says journalist and longtime friend Gay Talese. ”He spoke to a young generation in the ’60s, and then to a young generation that is in its 40s now, like my daughters, and there’s a generation of 20-year-old Vonnegut fans now. He seems to capture something that young people are quick to get.”
Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922, the son of architect Kurt Sr. and mom Edith, who committed suicide when her son was 21. He attended Cornell University before leaving to enroll in the Army; while serving in 1944, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and sent to Dresden as a POW. He survived the infamous Allied firebombing of the city, which killed thousands of people, because he and other prisoners were being kept in an underground meat locker — hence his most famous novel’s title — below their usual quarters.
It took Vonnegut 25 years to return to that much-too-memorable experience and publish Slaughterhouse-Five. In the meantime, he married childhood sweetheart Jane Marie Cox in 1945. (They separated more than 20 years later, and he wed photographer Jill Krementz in 1979. He ultimately raised seven children — including his three nephews, whom he adopted after his sister, Alice, died of cancer in 1958.) For years, Vonnegut took on jobs that included reporter, PR man, schoolteacher, and car dealer before he found his voice as a writer. It was one that had a thoroughly American sense of life’s possibilities — and its pitfalls. ”If it weren’t for World War II, I would now be the garden editor of the Indianapolis Star,” he cracked to EW in November.
Throughout his career, Vonnegut earned comparisons to fellow tousle-haired, mustachioed, tobacco-dependent Midwestern curmudgeon Mark Twain. Amid a generation of writers who cultivated black humor — including Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon — no one made apocalyptic joking into a more engaging and popular art form. One of the young writers Vonnegut mentored during a teaching gig at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the mid-1960s was future World According to Garp author John Irving. ”I certainly knew from reading Dickens that you could break the rules in terms of putting comedy and tragedy in the same story or even the same scene,” says Irving. ”But Vonnegut was such a flaunting example of that in contemporary terms. He could write the most condemning stuff about human nature while being both funny and kind.”
It was a unique trait found in Vonnegut’s 14 books, which tackle all manner of curses (war, stupidity, old-fashioned greed, bigotry) with modest comic affirmations (eccentricity, high spirits, low humor). What holds them together is the same wry voice that made his conversations and interviews so remarkable. Full as they were of conjectures, surprises, and abrupt turns for the worse, they were always redeemed by equally sudden shifts back toward good humor. Take, for instance, the closing moments of his last EW interview:
EW: ”Is there anything else you’d like to say?”
Vonnegut: ”You’re a nasty guy. Go f— yourself.”
EW: ”Um, okay.”
Vonnegut: [Laughs] ”No. Thanks, I enjoyed that. That was a nice interview.”
As ever, Vonnegut was dark and light at once. — Additional reporting by Gilbert Cruz
Four of his zaniest, brainiest offerings
+ SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (1969)
The lauded black comedy about time travel and the Dresden bombing.
+ CAT’S CRADLE (1963)
This sci-fi riot features two of his best inventions: Ice-9 and Bokononism.
+ MOTHER NIGHT (1961)
An American spy poses as a Nazi — too successfully. ”It’s a tough book,” marvels John Irving.
+ BACK TO SCHOOL (1986)
Vonnegut irresistibly cameos as himself in the film comedy classic, showing up to help Rodney Dangerfield with his Vonnegut paper. And Rodney still gets a bad grade.