Alex woke me up this morning with these words: “Kurt Vonnegut died.” When I checked my email before 8:30 this morning, my mom had sent an email with the news. Sad way to start the day.
I first read Vonnegut in high school because I had heard that Slaughterhouse Five was a classic and I felt that I should read it. Thank God. This man’s words had an amazing, calming effect on me, and even though he wrote about dark things with a dark sense of humor and a deep cynicism, I always felt joy when reading his words. I felt grateful that he had written them and saw beauty in them.
It was sometime in the early to mid ’90s when I met him briefly at a book signing at the now-gone bookstore institution Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. He was doing a reading on the second floor. The crowd was so big I had to stand on the first floor and couldn’t quite hear him. Then I stood in a long line to get my book signed. I swear to God, meeting him was like meeting a rock star.
He had deeply lined, leathery skin and a grim expression. I had the biggest grin I think I have ever had in my life. When he glanced up at me before signing my book, he gave me a small, brief, amused smile. A smile I interpreted as a nod at my obvious and ridiculous worship and goofy expression. Coming from this man, that smile meant so much.
I glowed for days.
To the right you’ll see my rendition of Rabo Karabekian’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony from Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Like Vonnegut’s drawing in the book (to paraphrase), mine is a miniature and not in color, but captures the picture’s form and the spirit too:
When called upon by a skeptical public to defend this painting that surely a 5-year-old could produce, Karabekian says:
“The painting did not exist until I made it. Now that it does exist, nothing would make me happier than to have it reproduced again and again, and vastly improved upon, by all the 5-year-olds in town. I would love for your children to find pleasantly and playfully what it took me many angry years to find.
“I now give you my work of honor,” he went on, “that the picture…shows everything about life which truly matters, with nothing left out. It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal–the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us–in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”
Kurt Vonnegut’s unwavering band of light may have fallen from the canvas, but it is still there in the painting in my heart. And readers of his books will see it there, glowing, in each and every one of his books. If you haven’t already, I urge you to pay homage to this brilliant man by reading one of books. You will receive wisdom, humor, questions, and careful thought.
God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.