The kindness of Kurt Vonnegut
WHEN I heard that Kurt Vonnegut died, I immediately went to my bookshelf to search for my hardcover copy of “Hocus Pocus.” No, it may not have been one of his greatest novels (I don’t think I finished it), but just before it was published at the end of summer of 1990, Vonnegut had handed me a signed copy in which he had drawn one of his famous caricatures of himself — unruly hair, bushy eyebrows, cigarette dangling from his mouth — and dedicated it to “Good Old Gregory, My Co-Author.”
Vonnegut will rightly be remembered as a darkly humorous social critic and the premier novelist of the counterculture. But the personal impression I will always hold of him is of a rather daft and kind old man whose vulnerability and honesty punctured through the pretensions of the world around him.
I was a 23-year-old, highly impressionable and generally terrified editorial assistant at Putnam Publishing in New York when I first met Kurt Vonnegut. One day, when his editor, my boss, Faith Sale, was out of town, he came to the office, slipped by the receptionist and asked to see Sale. What he got was me.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Vonnegut, I’m Gregory, Faith’s assistant. She’ll be in London for the next two weeks. Is there anything I can do for you?”
He looked dejected, even scared. And referring to the “Hocus Pocus” manuscript he had recently handed in, he asked, “Gregory, is the book terrible?”
Of course, I had no idea whether it was or wasn’t. My job wasn’t to read manuscripts by famous writers but to sift through mounds of unsolicited material and draft rejection letters. But my first unspoken reaction was: “My God, man, you’re Kurt Vonnegut, what are you worried about?”
Instead, I touched the elbow of his ratty, gray, smoke-drenched blazer and told him the manuscript was great, then asked him if he’d like to take a seat and have something to drink. Then I made an emergency call to my boss.
I don’t know if it was just to put his mind at ease or whether she really wanted him to rewrite some portions of the novel, but Sale asked him to come in over the next week or so and sit in the empty office across from my desk and do revises.
For the next several days, he lumbered onto the 16th floor in the late morning and spent a few hours in that little room. I don’t know exactly what he did in there, but he’d greet me warmly when he arrived and even invite me to sit and chat. When he heard that I had studied religion in college, he chuckled and then proclaimed that one day he and I would write a book together about all the crazy things people believe in.
I got out of New York and book editing by 1992. And I didn’t think much about Vonnegut until a few days before Christmas 2005. I was huddled in the freezing cold at the Schoenefeld station in eastern Berlin waiting for a train to Dresden and finally reading “Slaughterhouse-Five,” his masterpiece. I had also read Frederick Taylor’s masterful account of the 1945 Dresden firebombings. But when I arrived in the capital of Saxony that evening, I wasn’t thinking of squadrons and statistics, but of the witnesses to the massacre, like Vonnegut and his surrogate, Billy Pilgrim, and what the horror did to them.
A critic once wrote that “Slaughterhouse-Five” “was less about Dresden than about Vonnegut’s failure to come to terms with it.” I couldn’t agree more. Like Lot’s wife, Vonnegut looked back at the firebombing of Dresden, the defining event of his life, and never got over it. No, he didn’t turn to salt, and more important, he didn’t resort to anger. He saw and he wept, but, like one of his protagonists in another novel, millionaire philanthropist Eliot Rosewater, Vonnegut’s answer throughout his writing was to exhort us to be kind.
Based on my few days and hours as a lowly editorial assistant toiling beside the great Kurt Vonnegut, I can honestly say that he practiced what he preached.