Five years ago next month, one of my generation’s foremost spokesmen died. Often angry and sarcastic, always brilliant, Kurt Vonnegut wrote Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, and a host of other novels that helped voice our post-war confusion and defiance. Like Mark Twain before him, Vonnegut captured the dilemna of finding ourselves in a world not made for us, a mad siren that woos us with its dazzling mix of delights, terrors, beauty and pain.
So I’ll hug my signed copy of Bluebeard (which the Times obit didn’t even mention!) a bit closer on April 11. I haven’t told many people the story of its signing, because it’s not a moment I’m proud of. But now feels like the time to fess up: years ago, my teenage daughter and I took our respective favorite Vonnegut titles (she was clutching Cat’s Cradle) to his reading at the Ethical Culture Society in New York City. After he finished, we rushed toward the aisle to get our books signed, but Vonnegut (who’d looked and acted pretty inebriated during the reading) had vanished!
We asked an elderly usher what was up, and he winked, pointing to the back of the huge, vaulted hall. “He snuck out the back,” he told us. So the two of us took off, in the opposite direction from the rest of the crowd exiting out the front. We wandered through the dark bowels of the building, coming on a small back door. But when I pushed it open, the street was empty. No one moved on the sidewalk in front of us. We were about to turn back, when I heard a cough BEHIND the door I’d just swung wide. I peered around it, and there he was, rumpled and crumpled and HIDING. Vonnegut looked up sheepishly. “You caught me,” he said.
The aging writer we cornered so shamelessly that day was a good deal older, a great deal more “tender” than the man who wrote Cradle. Relentless celebrity hounds, we succeeded in getting our books signed — albeit in a nearly illegible scrawl. I feel guilty about having mashed one of my idols behind that door, but I was young and so wanted Robin to have an extraordinary memory of the reading. Now she does. As for me? I rather wish I’d let cringing authors stay hidden.
You see, what drew me to Bluebeard in 1997 was the very thing I so conspicuously lacked in our encounter with Vonnegut in that secular cathedral: a large, wounded, but brave heart. This same heart is evident behind these words, quoted in the Times obit five years ago, from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ “