On the subject of . . . where was I? Humor, I think. I’m working on this transition thing, something else Kurt, quite honestly, wasn’t so good at. Nothing but blank spaces or little dots separating completely different ideas until your eyes roll back into your head. Humor. So I got these off the covers of his books: “Our finest black humorist. We laugh in self-defense.” “A laughing prophet of doom.” “Madcap,” “zany,” “social satirist.” You’ve got to admire it, the way Kurt could market himself to everyone. He knew what he was doing. Bathroom humor for the kids, all about farting and so on. Making fun of the dumb and clueless for the elitist intellectuals. Making fun of intellectuals for everybody else. Marketing, all shameless marketing. Don’t you know when you’re being bamboozled, People of Earth?
Even my beloved, long-gone Mary was taken in. For every line that was just plain mean and gratuitously nasty, she had one she found hysterically funny. The funny stuff made the sad stuff sadder, she said. Mary thought one of Kurt’s funniest characters was Billy Pilgrim’s fat wife. “But it’s funny, Bernie,” Mary said. “And sad. And real, too. Can’t you just picture it? Billy Pilgrim’s poor, silly wife ooing and ahing over her new jewelry and forgetting about what a wonderful marriage she has? All she can think is, this time I’m really going to lose weight for him. I’ve done that myself, sworn I would lose weight and make you proud to have me on your arm.” When I think of this, all I can do is remember how Mary was always so ashamed of her chubby waist and wish I could hold onto it again. Christ. Mary.
Well, enough of that. Breathe in, breathe out.
Now, what was I talking about? Oh, right. People call Kurt a great science fiction writer. Let me tell you, he might have been playing at the science fiction stuff, but Kurt stopped being a science fiction writer decades ago. Let’s look at dystopias, for example. They’re supposed to be instructive, a future society reflecting on our own, right? That’s the rule. So what does Kurt Vonnegut the famous writer do? He writes a dystopia, okay, but here’s what it is: It’s a million years into the future and the human race has evolved into Flipper. Brainless seafood. What kind of dystopia is that? Now, my daughter Meghan says it’s political. Subversive. I say it’s a waste of a perfectly good idea, the way Kurt squandered the entire evolution card. And for why? To talk about fish? The point is what, exactly? He’s just breaking the rules. Again.
I mean, the guy had all kinds of great sci fi ideas. Plus all those ideas I gave him when he’d call in the middle of the night. Not that he ever gave me credit. And the one he ends up with is fish? All our best ideas, he gave to that jerk everybody thinks is his alter ego. Which brings me to Kilgore Trout.
Kurt came to my house this one time. As usual, we sat at the kitchen table and had some drinks. We smoked. We talked about the war a little, but not much. More about how silly and fun it was to have little people growing up in our houses. And then, maybe because he’d had a few too many drinks, Kurt’s eyes filled with water, and he said, “I hate being a writer.”
“Why, Kurt,” I asked, “why?” And he starting going on and on about how he had these great ideas that spoke to him, but he’d never get them published. He complained about the critics who’d be up his ass, and how he’d have to go sell cars and die a sad, not so fabulously well-to-do, old man.
Kurt was always chock full of what-if ideas. They were funny and poignant and dealt with big issues like ecology and religion and morality it was all a no go.
Well here is where I have to admit that Kurt was kind of a genius. Not such a hot writer, but a genius. Or let me rephrase that. A con artist. Because Kilgore Trout, my friends, was a brilliant scam.
Kurt gave all those great little ideas to a fictional character. It was ingenious. Kurt could just throw all his ideas in and pretend like Trout had already written the whole thing. Makes me laugh just thinking about it, Kurt getting credit for stories he barely summarized. But here’s what I want to know: Why couldn’t my good old war buddy Kurt have made Kilgore Trout into a self-righteous prick instead of me?
My wife’s dead now, but she and my daughter used to talk about Kurt’s books all the time. I think the two of them might have had little crushes on him even though his face was all bristly, and he smelled like an old ashtray. Meghan used to say that she even loved the books she didn’t like, something else I never understood.
No matter what kind of crap the guy puts on paper, people just love, love, love Kurt. Take Meghan, for example. She’s a teacher now, a job I think is more important than being a writer or a lawyer. I don’t think she has any idea how proud I am of her.  Literature, Meghan says, is the best way to get the kids thinking. She’s always telling her classes how Slaughterhouse-Five changed her life.
One of her students, a real show-off, a guy we would have called a turkey in law school, wrote this paper called Post-Modernist Histiographic Metafiction : The Metafictional Aspects of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. When she came over for dinner that Sunday, Meghan asked me: “What should I do with this kid? He took his whole paper right off the Internet.” She showed me the paper, typed out all neat and with a little plastic cover. I read the title.
“I don’t even know what this means,” I said.
“Well, it’s saying that Mr. Vonnegut was a postmodernist who wrote metafiction.”
“So what makes it metafiction?” I asked. I’m chuckling to myself right now about how I’m using dialogue to impart information as I say this into the recorder. Ha-ha, I think.
“Well, for example, when Mr. Vonnegut writes himself into some of his stories, he’s using a metafictional device. He’s being sort of self-reflective.”
“Okay . . . ,” I said. Self-indulgent more like, is what I thought.
“You know how he repeats things like ‘so it goes’ whenever somebody dies? Or uses science fiction tropes even though he’s not really writing science fiction? That’s postmodern.” Meghan was getting on a roll, using her teacher voice.
Now I don’t want to burst my sweet daughter’s bubble, but that’s a load of crap. I knew Kurt. I especially knew Kurt trying to write about Dresden. This was the only way he could do it. How else can somebody write a true story about burying children who have been burnt to a crisp? I didn’t say any of that, just, “So, that’s metafiction?” Meghan sighed a little. I could tell she was thinking, I can’t teach this old fart doodly-squat. Why don’t kids ever realize their parents don’t actually have an interest in things like metafiction? Even the smart ones don’t get that all we’re doing is trying to stay in their lives somehow.
So it goes, so it goes, so it goes.
3. Now, just think about this for a minute. Kilgore Trout’s stories weren’t just stuck in willy-nilly the way you’re saying. It was a technique. Mr. Vonnegut always thought about what he was doing even if it didn’t seem that way. I mean, look at that story in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater where one of the characters wants to ask God, what in hell are people for? Even if Eliot Rosewater is nutty, you’ve got to love him for adoring all those unlovable people just because they’re human beings. And doesn’t Mr. Vonnegut make us wonder about the rest of those sad sacks and shrinks and senators and yes, Daddy, lawyers, too, don’t we want to know just what in hell they’re all for?
4. Why didn’t you ever tell me? You were hard sometimes, you know? Me, too, I guess. All those disappointments. Remember when I was working at Howard Johnson’s after school, and you let me use the Datsun to drive there and back? That one day when I came home with the engine knocking and billowing smoke. You threw open the hood and checked, and there was no oil. And you were so mad, you jerked back up and banged your head on the hood. I heard the sound it made, like a little explosion, can hear it still. Your face was so awful, flushed and tight, with that cut and the blood trickling down your forehead. That’s the face I saw for years and years when I tried to think how you saw me. I remember myself back then, yelling about how you never said anything about checking the oil, and how was I supposed to know, and it was all your own stupid fault anyway. Then I ran inside and slammed the door. I acted mad and put out, but that wasn’t it. I just couldn’t stand seeing your face. You were angry, sure, but you looked so sad and confused, too, like you were thinking: How could I have raised such a nincompoop? There’s a stranger living in my house who can’t get one thing right, who doesn’t care about anybody or anything but herself. How did that happen? Even now, when I want to see you proud and beaming, I see the smoking car, your face, that blood.
5. I was never sure you were interested. You know what I found the other day when I was cleaning out your desk? Remember when I was in high school, and we started that underground newspaper? It was pretty funny, a bunch of kids pretending to be making big political statements just so we could use dirty words and make fun of our teachers. And then the principal called and threatened to expel me. I thought you were going to have a stroke. And for all these years, what I remembered was how furious at me you were. But then I found the letter you wrote back then, saying the school should be proud that students like me were learning to question authority, that you supported my decision to express my beliefs, that the administration’s infringement on my Constitutional rights might be an actionable offense, and you were reviewing your options. Signed, Bernard V. and Mary K. O’Hare. Why didn’t I know you better?