Book Article

Doctor Doom

Kurt Vonegut latest controversial best-seller -- The author discusses his restored literary celebrity and the success of ''Hocus Pocus''

Before you begin reading this article, Kurt Vonnegut would like you to know that it is fated to end badly: After all, Vonnegut is one of the leading pessimists of our time. His stock-in-trade is the behavior of idiots everywhere — politicians, scientists, educators, and particularly journalists. So even as he admitted this reporter into his oak-paneled kitchen one morning to discuss his new novel, Hocus Pocus, the author must already have expected the worst.

''It doesn't seem to me we're on the same wavelength,'' he finally told me, when, after an hour of dark talk, I wondered aloud whether he could find any hope for humanity in all this gloom. ''Our backgrounds are so different. Our generations are so different. I don't think you understand my sense of humor. I don't think you can distinguish between my ironies, which say one thing and imply another. I don't think,'' he added, ''you can see me as I would like to be seen.''

So how would Kurt Vonnegut like to be seen? Probably — if I may be allowed a wild guess — exactly as he presented himself to me that morning in his kitchen. Slouched in his seat before his freshly polished breakfast table, Vonnegut looked remarkably like a condemned man, an embattled and misunderstood critic of all things American — culture, politics, history, you name it. And certainly he has recently been treated this way. In a good-news culture, like the Reagan '80s, for instance, he was often dismissed. His glum books (Galápagos, Dead Eye Dick, and Bluebeard) were frequently panned and he feels he was punished for being the bad-news bearer. ''Nobody is saying to Henry Kissinger, 'Why the hell did you have to back that monster in Iraq?' Nobody gets punished for anything. Except me, the writer of books,'' Vonnegut laments.

Well maybe, but even in times of literary neglect, Vonnegut has remained a favorite speaker at the sorts of institutions he is so fond of attacking — churches, cultural forums, colleges. He may view himself as an embattled critic, but his winsome style and diverting humor have earned him an enviable cultural position as America's most celebrated literary skeptic. On the lecture circuit he attracts almost as big an audience (although for a much smaller fee) as his nemesis, that eternal optimist Ronald Reagan, a man Vonnegut is fond of describing as ''a complete idiot.''

Although it suffered briefly under Reagan, Vonnegut's literary reputation seems to be on the rise again. Hocus Pocus now has a secure spot on The New York Times Best-Seller List. Most reviews have been emphatically positive (including one in this magazine) and the critics have heralded his resurrection as the ''Doctor Doom'' of American literature. ''Hocus Pocus re- establishes Vonnegut's place as the Mark Twain of our times,'' announced The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. ''Poor man,'' echoed Jay Cantor in The Washington Post. ''I hope his despair continues.''

Apparently it will. Hocus Pocus is the death-row diary of Eugene Debs Hartke, by all accounts a complete loser. An inmate of a maximum-security prison falsely accused of masterminding a massive jail break, Hartke is one step away from death row. His wife and mother-in-law both suffer from a hereditary strain of insanity. His children despise him. And, for good measure, he has contracted a fatal case of TB. In fact, Hartke's message to us all is that failure is the central experience of modern life. ''I see no harm in telling young people to prepare for failure rather than success,'' he says, ''since failure is the main thing that is going to happen to them.'' It's a message that Vonnegut has announced before, most particularly in his meditations on World War II in Mother Night and Slaughterhouse Five, but readers seem ready, once again, to sit up and listen.

No doubt the advent of harder times is responsible for bringing Vonnegut's brand of pessimism, so popular during the height of the Vietnam War, into vogue again. ''Just look at the front page of The New York Times,'' says HarperCollins' Ted Solotaroff, who edited the powerful American Review during the '60s, when the following for Vonnegut was at full strength. ''We're on the verge of war with Iraq. Bush wanted to save the economy by having a capital- gains tax. The president's son is up to his elbows in financial corruption. Who could have invented all this but Vonnegut? The country has slipped its moorings. The humor of despair and the despair of humor are back in.''

How is Vonnegut adjusting to the restoration of his literary celebrity? Suffice it to say that he isn't smiling. Sucking despondently on a string of expiring Pall Malls, he still sees himself as having paid a very high price for candor. ''Why should I be the jerk who tells the truth?'' he demands, issuing a long harsh cackle. But it is a rhetorical question, since he believes humanity is dangerously close to death and means to keep on pointing that out. ''It's a matter of machinery,'' he says. ''We have had an actual mechanical catastrophe. It's as though we've been bombed.'' He leans forward in his kitchen seat to enlighten you with another of his metaphors. ''It's like you're riving along in your car and the thing stops running,'' he says. ''Somebody broke it, somebody sabotaged it.''

But who's to blame? Vonnegut's quick mind inventories his long list of idiots responsible for getting us into this mess. The culprits include the greedy Wall Street financiers who have sold America off to the Japanese; the benighted politicians who bungled our national energy policy (''We have no energy policy, therefore we will have to go to war about petroleum''); the leaders in Washington who allowed the massive robbery from our savings and loans. But Vonnegut's list of villains hardly stops there. Don't forget the conspiracy of fools who preside over the breakdown of our public-education system, the destruction of our environment, and…so on.

In short, Kurt Vonnegut blames everyone for the coming Apocalypse — everyone, that is, but himself. ''I'm the only one who wants life to go on,'' he insists. ''It's obvious to me that I want life to go on and most people don't give a damn whether it does or not.'' That statement is plainly central to the way Kurt Vonnegut wants you to see him, so much so that he made it early on in our interview and kept repeating it. He even asked me to emphasize it in this story. Was he being ironic, saying one thing and implying another? No matter, it's the least I can do to oblige. ''Emphasize,'' Vonnegut told me, ''that I'm the only person who wants life to go on. Nobody else gives a damn…''

Not long after he had said that for the third or fourth time, Vonnegut decided that I didn't sufficiently give a damn and abruptly ejected me from his Manhattan brownstone. But I do not think he would be displeased with this article. If he's read it, I am sure it has confirmed his sense of who he is. Who knows, Kurt Vonnegut may even be smiling.

Originally posted Oct 12, 1990 Published in issue #35 Oct 12, 1990 Order article reprints