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mother night book coverListen: I was Kurt Vonnegut's friend for a long time. But that doesn't mean the guy could write. Whenever he was asked how he felt about his books, he said lousy. Well, guess what, old friend--you weren't lying. Hate to break this to you, but I've been reading and reading and all I can say is: You wrote your little brains out, and not a damn thing has changed.

Why do I say this now about my friend who just died and who I loved like a brother? You may think it's all over that Bernard B. O'Hare fiasco in Mother Night, but there's more, oh, Lordy there's more.

When he still had a body, we talked about a lot of things, my old war buddy and me. About all the ways things could be different; how people could treat each other with kindness and respect; how we, this bunch of people living on the same planet, could make sure that everyone had food in their stomachs; how the air and the water and the whole goddam planet didn't have to go to pot; how governments could stop starting stupid wars over things like religion and land and oil.

So, Kurt, you really thought you could do it, didn't you? All that self-deprecating shit you said, and you still thought that if you wrote enough books, you could make things better. Well, hah!

All right. Calming down now. God, I've got such a headache. Breathe in, breathe out. Better now.

Yeah, Kurt was my friend. And we did talk a lot, but not so much about his writing. I read his books, but didn't really pay much attention because he was my friend, and all that was just his job. He never tried to go to court for me except that one time back when I was the Northampton County DA, and he thought I should throw a case against a welfare mom who kept stealing Pop-Tarts for her kids. He did try to sell me a Crown Vic this one time that had one hundred something thousand miles on it. He kept telling me all the reasons it was a good deal. Sounded like some lawyers I could name.

Sometimes Kurt's books all ran into each other, and I'd get them mixed up. Well, except for Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night. I was in both of those, and they were about the war. Well, maybe everything was about the war. Was and was and maybe still is.

I was in a lot of Kurt's books. Once, I was a sixty-year-old pilot. Kurt gave me an erection in that one. To compensate, he said, for making me such an old fart. Thanks, buddy. I love it when my kids read about my private parts. And then he writes Timequake, and, for no good reason and without even any warning, I'm a dead guy. Now that was a shocker, let me tell you. Jesus!

I'm not like all those ex-governors or losers on reality TV, who everybody forgets about the minute they get voted off or evicted or kicked off the island or what-have-you. Because even after he killed me off, Kurt kept talking about me, his dead war buddy, Bernard O'Hare. About how I hated the war and lost my religion and all that. He was all the time mentioning how I was dead, though, which always gave me a chill. Some kind of message there, huh?

I loved Kurt so I tried to love his books, too. That was before Kurt fell and ended up in a hospital bed, with tubes and needles stuck to his skin with surgical tape. And then he up and died and left me on this planet full of sadness and garbage and war, and I realized just how full of shit he was.[1]

Mother Night, for example. Reading about Bernard B. O'Hare, I felt betrayed all over again, just like I did when it first came out and Kurt thought it was such a big ha-ha on me. Back then I called Kurt up to yell at him about it, but he just kept saying, "It was a joke, man, a joke!"

Ha-ha.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, Mother Night.

So here's what Kurt had Howard W. Campbell--Nazi, anti-Semite, evildoer--say to me. I have it right here; been reading it over and over and getting madder and madder. He said, "There are plenty of good reasons for fighting . . . but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where's evil? It's that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side." And everybody loves that quote.

Now that he's dead, people are saying all kinds of wonderful things about my friend Kurt Vonnegut. All these people, some of them who didn't even like him when he was alive. Telling lies, making him a saint. The sainted Kurt Vonnegut. A humanist, they call him, the funniest guy on the planet, a prophet for our age. A this, a that.

Kurt a humanist? My ass! If he was such a goody-two-shoes lover of human beings, why did he have to be such a son of a bitch about all the people in his books? There aren't any villains in his stories, he used to say. Well, there might not be any villains, but where are the good people? Answer me that! [2]

Back in the '70s when Meghan was still a little kid, there was this show on TV she loved. It was called Kung Fu. It starred David Carradine, who's something of a crackpot himself. You can see, looking at him, that he's searching for something, and he's going to think of all kinds of weirdo ways to get it. That thing--why can't I remember? Wanting something, wanting it so bad--it'll get you every time. Oh God.

But that's not what I was talking about. In the show my daughter loved so much, David Carradine played this Shaolin priest from China. The priest has a price on his head because he killed a little kid. A little kid he kills, and this is the hero of the story. Of course the kid was rich and snotty, so I guess it's okay, right? Anyway, the hero/kid-murdering priest runs away to the US of A. This is in the time of the Old West. No Interpol or anything. But the point is . . . yeah, the point is that because the priest is such a Zen kind of guy, he doesn't believe in violence. He's always whispering these lovely thoughts about nature and being a pacifist and not talking unless you have something important to say. But in every goddam episode, he cracks some guy's head open.

So you can see the connection, right? Between Kung Fu and Kurt Vonnegut? Because there are all these connections I never noticed before. Like the way all the music on The Food Channel shows is the same as in porn movies. Really, if you listen, it's just the same. Or like this here, how Kurt was the Shaolin priest of humanism. For the sake of saying lovely things about kindness and equality and good will, Kurt made fun of everybody, everything. Religion sucks, government sucks, using your brain too much sucks, but so does forgetting to use it at all. This is what happens when smart, funny humanists go bad.

 

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1. Daddy, you don't really feel that way. Remember that time after Mom died, and the phone rang, and you thought it was her even though you knew she was dead? But it was just the dry cleaner wondering why you hadn't picked up your suits. And then you hollered at him, "That's Mary's job! Mary picks up the goddam dry cleaning!" and you slammed the phone so hard it fell off the wall. You yelled, "Goddamn you, Mary! How am I supposed to get my suits?" And then you started to cry. It's like that. 

2. I just have to say something here, Daddy. You knew Mr. Vonnegut. And you knew what kinds of things he thought were important. Didn't you know that I was always hiding on the stairs listening when you sat together at the kitchen table and talked and talked? Did you think I didn't hear the pain and anger in your voices? Or the empathy? Why were so many of Mr. Vonnegut's characters such simpletons? With their bad habits and imperfect bodies and human foibles? And why were they so effective just the way they were? It's the same reason you loved the teenagers you represented who spray painted their anger on church walls or watched TV all day instead of going to school. You wanted so much more for them. 


 

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