Kurt Vonnegut (Jr., not Sr.)
C/O Saint Peter
The Pearly Gates
Dear Mr. Vonnegut:
Your epitaph is the easy part. You gave us so many options. You liked to imagine epitaphs for yourself. You told us, your readers, what we should say if, God forbid, you died. That's how I know I should say this: Kurt is up in heaven now.
And this: The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.
And also this: Life's no way to treat an animal.
Or how about, my favorite: Everything was beautiful. Nothing hurt.
That's the epitaph I find myself thinking of now. That's the one I hope rang most true for you when you closed your eyes for good on April 11, 2007, leaving my city - and the world - a sadder, dumber, meaner place.
I'm sure lots of famous people will write elegant tributes to you in the coming weeks. I don't know what right I have to write this one. After all, who am I? I am nobody. I am Yon Yonson. I am Philboyd Studge. I feel like Horatio, left behind to recite these epitaphs. Good night sweet Prince. But that's not right either. Hamlet knew Horatio. They were pals. I was not your pal, Mr. Vonnegut. You didn't know me from Adam. You were my pal, though - in that quiet, profound way that our favorite writers become our pals. You befriended me with your books. And I always meant to write a letter and tell you. I wanted to thank you. I wanted to tell you how much I learned from you. Most of all, I wanted to come clean with you. Because I am suddenly enjoying some small success as a writer. I've been published in a couple places. I just sold my first book. And I stole from you, Mr. Vonnegut. Every time I sit down to write I steal from you. I can't help it. All my best stuff was your stuff first. I owe you, man.
So I'm finally writing this long overdue fan letter cum confession. Why did I wait so long? I'm a coward, of course. This way, you can't write back and say, "Knock it off, Kid!" I hope Saint Peter will forward this to you if I address it to the Pearly Gates.
Like so many of us, when I was in high school, I stumbled upon a slender novel called Slaughterhouse-Five. It's no exaggeration to say your "lousy little book" changed the trajectory of my life. Before Slaughterhouse, I read garbage: adolescent erotica disguised as science fiction, elves and trolls knocking around in magical forests, that sort of nonsense. I didn't know any better. You changed everything. I remember handing your book to my friend Tony, insisting that he read it too. Tony got hung-up at chapter one, where you told us what birds say after a massacre. And you wrote (about your book), "It ends like this: Poo-tee-weet?" Tony didn't believe you. So he checked. "It's true!" he told me. "That's the last word!" You'd broken what we'd always thought of as a cardinal rule in fiction. You'd given away the ending.
As I read more and more of your books, sacking the library for anything with your name on it like an addict searching for a fix in the cleaning closet, I discovered that you broke lots of rules. You did whatever the hell you pleased. You loped into literature's distinguished parlor, put your muddy feet up on the table and ashed your Pall Malls on the carpet. You thumbed your nose at traditional plots. You fired off one-sentence paragraphs with glee. You never disappeared behind your characters like a proper novelist, but went ahead of them, introduced them, and usually eclipsed them. You used dirty words. You drew cartoons. You even drew a cartoon asshole once and then adopted that little asterisk into your own signature. For the rest of your life, you signed "asshole" each time you signed your name! That was the sort of coded self-mockery that I could get behind.
You asked questions that I, at age seventeen, was starting to ask. Questions I'm still asking today. Questions like, what the hell are people for? Even better, you had the courage to admit that you didn't know the answers to those questions. And always, you wrote with a disarming simplicity, a directness that made me - no, all of us, separately, feel as though we were not reading you but having a conversation with you. Listen, you would say, and we would. You told us about your family, about the things you loved in this world and the things that made you sad. You told us jokes. And we read them to our girlfriends and boyfriends to make ourselves look smarter. We passed them off as our own. We flattered ourselves that you were just like us. It wasn't true of course. You were one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century and we were - most of us - just clowns stuffed in a Volkswagen, gasping for air, hunting for a place to put our elbows. But it was nice of you to let us think that.
And now you've signed off for the last time, checked out of Hotel Earth. I don't know why it bothers me. After all, you didn't like it here very much. You liked it even less these days, with psychopathic C-students from Yale trashing the place. You'd been ready to check out for decades, trying to commit suicide by cigarette. Those cigarettes promised to do the trick on the label and then let you soldier on for eighty-four years! It's a great joke, one worthy of you Mr. Vonnegut, that in the end it wasn't the cigarettes, the war, or the bad chemicals in your brain that got you, but plain old everyday gravity.
Here's another joke for you. After I finished Breakfast of Champions for the first time, still in high school, I went home and measured my penis with a ruler. You got me wondering after you listed the measurements of every character in the book, Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout and everybody else. You really had me going when you declared that your penis was 5-inches wide and 2-inches long until, ruler in hand, in the bathroom, I decided that was impossible. Anyway, here's the joke. I wrote about the penis measuring in Breakfast of Champions on my Advanced Placement English Exam. How did I do? I got a 5, the highest possible score, and tested out of English Composition in college. Thanks, penises!
Please don't think this letter is all assholes and penises. I'm trying to tell you something important. I guess I can call myself a writer now, which is an amazing thing to call myself when I'm so used to other names like "Temp" and "Bartender" and "Unemployed." People say that writers learn to write by reading. That's certainly true for me. Books have always been my classrooms. I'm still in school. I've studied with Shakespeare, Joyce, Salinger, Cheever. I've been blessed with great teachers. I've pored over Nabokov's virtuosity, Carver's clarity and McCarthy's power. But you, Mr. Vonnegut, were my first writing teacher. You're the one I return to again and again. In your class, I learned to use a punctuation mark called a colon like the pause before a punch line. It makes almost anything funnier. So whenever I go like this: That's Kurt Vonnegut. Some punch lines are funnier than others. I learned about rhythm from you, too. You showed me how to build sentences and paragraphs that sound good together, that make good word music. That's not news to you, I'm sure, since you've been listening to my word music for approximately 1,300 notes now. You taught me that simple sentences are usually better than flashy ones. And that sad things are funny because they are true. You warned me to stay away from semi-colons so I do, most of the time; sometimes I like to show that I went to college.
Some of your lessons had nothing to with writing. Some of them would have hit me like the apple hit Newton even if I'd had no aspirations to pull words out of a pen. Your books helped me shape what I thought about the world around me. They helped me figure out what sort of human being I wanted to be. You were my truth-teller. For instance, you can't imagine how elated I was to discover that I didn't have to be a Christian in order to be a good person. I could choose to treat others charitably - not in deference to any eternal consequences, not because somebody was keeping score, but because it was the right thing to do. People who believed that, you wrote, called themselves Humanists. What a relief! I'd been wedged between the only two choices anyone had offered me: Christian or Devil Child. I started calling myself a Humanist immediately. Unfortunately, I didn't become one until much later.
Let me explain. I saw you speak once, at a lecture hall in Davis, California, while I was a student at the University there. I'd never seen another Humanist before. I had a great time. And for years afterward, under the thinnest pretense, I'd repeat something you said that night: "We're put on this planet to fart around," you said. "And don't let anyone tell you different." How I loved that! A dirty finger right in the eye of organized religion, of gooey ideas about fate and benevolent creators. What can I say? I was a smartass. I thought I was tough. It wasn't until I grew up, until I got my teeth kicked in a few times by life's wrecking crew (you know, Disappointment, Heartbreak, Failure, those guys) that I began to include what you'd said next: "But be a saint anyway." I don't think I'm a saint yet. But at least I'm not so focused on the farting around part anymore.
Enough. I can't put this off any longer. Two things, Mr. Vonnegut. First, I'm asking you to forgive me. Forgive my punctuation poaching, my style stealing, and all my clunky impressions of you, which are about as graceful as a bear in a tutu attempting a ballet. I know. Second, I'm asking for your blessing to keep going the only way I know how, which is to say as an unlicensed knock-off of the original, as a Praba purse on Canal street. I have to write this book now and it's supposed to be funny. Honestly, I don't know how to do either if I can't borrow from you like I've always done. I'll be hopeless. I won't be able to write a grocery list. And I hope, after all this audacious filching, you'll permit me one last little rip-off here. For old times sake. You liked to say that if it wasn't for the Sermon on the Mount, you wouldn't have wanted to be a human being. You'd just as soon have been a rattlesnake. I don't mean to embarrass you Sir, but without your books, I'm not so sure that I would want to be a human being. I think I'd just as soon be a rattlesnake. But the Sermon on the Mount is nice too. Don't get me wrong. Speaking of the Sermon on the Mount, you are up there now, with the angels. So it goes. It must be nice. We're still down here where you left us, all crammed in the clown car, wondering, "What do we do now?" And "Is that my foot?" And "Who's driving?" But we'll be okay. We'll muddle through. At least we've got sunscreen.
So long, Mr. Vonnegut. Say hello to Eugene Debbs for me.
Your old friend,
Brooklyn, New York