Kurt Vonnegut is the sole reason I became a writer. I was 17 years old when I read my first Kurt Vonnegut novel. It was Mother Night, a claustrophobic tale about a man embroiled in counter intelligence during World War II who ends up being deserted by the very country that enlisted him and sentenced to death for war crimes. After finishing the book the very day I started reading it, I voraciously consumed every Vonnegut book I could get my hands on, eventually reading my way through his entire catalogue. From the moment I picked his books up, I was absolutely enraptured with his sardonic humor and brilliant storytelling. For the first time in my life, I knew with utter certainty the career path I wanted to follow.
Perhaps more than any other writer of the past 50 years, Vonnegut understood the post-war consciousness of America. The dehumanizing effects of technology, the dangers of authoritarianism, the horrors of war: Vonnegut lucidly described them all with the wry humor of a satirist and the grim clarity of a prophet. And, in the midst of his bizarre scenarios and science fiction settings, I found God’s truth. Though Vonnegut was himself a secular humanist, he expertly described the human condition of despair and depravity. Like a latter-day Mark Twain, Vonnegut vividly illuminated this condition through humor and acerbic wit, sweetening, but never dulling his commentary. Perhaps one of the most moralistic authors of the latter half of the 20th century, Vonnegut’s ever-present admonition was simple: that people treat one another with respect and dignity. His message can be summed up in a statement from the title character of his novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. The statement was Rosewater’s greeting to newborn infants. “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies … you’ve got to be kind."
As I reflect on his death last week at the age of 84, I’m struck by the profound impact his work has had on me. Kurt Vonnegut made me believe that as a writer, I could say something of worth and meaning. Early on, I tried to ape his style with very limited success. It forced me to develop my own voice, a gift in and of itself. Yet, part of Vonnegut’s influence remains very much alive in everything I write: the willingness to find humor in the most difficult of situations; the knowledge that the amassing of wealth, technology and power cannot ultimately satisfy; the belief that people have intrinsic worth and the desire to see the good that, with God’s help, they are capable of doing; the conviction that in the midst of a world rapidly losing its moral bearing and sense of compassion, there is still hope.
As a fan of Vonnegut’s work, one of the hardest things to watch was how he let go of this hope in his later years, becoming convinced that there would not be a brighter future for society. For the last several years of his life, he seemed tired, spent, disappointed. It was, perhaps, the product of so many years spent warning the world that it had to change, and so many years of not witnessing that change. Yet, he still left a great legacy for those of us who were affected by his work. That legacy is encapsulated in the idea that if we are honest and kind, we can observe the world becoming the better place that Vonnegut hoped for but never saw. For me, this idea is tempered with the fact that it is the spirit of Christ in us that makes this possible.
After abandoning work on what was to be his final novel, If God Were Alive Today, Vonnegut told Rolling Stone, “The Army kept me on because I could type, so I was typing other people’s discharges and stuff. And my feeling was, ‘Please, I’ve done everything I was supposed to do. Can I go home now?’ That’s what I feel right now. I’ve written books. Lots of them. Please, I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do. Can I go home now?"
Yes, Mr. Vonnegut. And thank you.