Thursday, April 12, 2007
KURT VONNEGUT: PAPERBACK GURU, OUTLAW GRAMMARIAN
Kurt Vonnegut died last night at the age of 84.
Although he never knew it, he was my mentor.
As a restless 15-year-old I'd get bored on the idyllic island where I lived. So every Saturday I used to hop the bus and head to the University District in Seattle. I'd spend hours in the used bookshops on "The Ave". There was one in particular that was run by a crazy old man. I wish I could remember the name of this place. It was dusty and dark, and the books were piled high and in random order. There were a few cats running around and jazz playing in the background. Posters for bands and political events were plastered on the walls and people just sat on the floors talking or reading. The owner didn't care. He believed in creating a sense of community where everyone was welcome.
When some random guy came in selling a bag of vintage clothes, he bought me a 1960's cocktail dress. I wore it with alarming frequency (much to my mom's irritation) up until my first year of college. He also gave me a copy of Dorothy Parker's "Enough Rope". But there was a caveat: "Even though I'm a little afraid to give this to you at such a young age, it's good writing. Just don't get jaded like her. Promise me, okay?"
In this comforting environment I was free to thumb through as many well-worn paperbacks as I wanted, for as long as I wanted. I didn't have any sort of literary compass. I just grabbed books that caught my eye, whether it was the cover art or the title that attracted me.
One of the first books that I bought using this method was Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions". As soon as I opened it, I was fascinated. The grammar was all over the place. There were strange doodles on the pages. It looked like my journal, only published for the masses. I couldn't believe that it was an actual book published by an actual publishing house. It was too fucking cool.
I carried that book around with me for months. It was proof, somehow, that I could actually become a writer when I got older. If this loon Vonnegut could do it, then there was room for me too. I took the book to college with me and had it in my book bag the night I saw Kurt Vonnegut and his pal Joseph Heller at a writers symposium in New Orleans. I wanted him to sign it. But seeing his iconic face, framed by that big mop of hair, I suddenly felt shy. I wondered if he'd think I was foolish. I wondered if I'd get up close and not be able to speak, rendered mute by my nerves.
When the discussion ended I wandered out into the balmy night with my book unsigned.
A couple of years ago I was sitting in a Midtown bar, waiting for some friends. It was summer, and the bar had the front glass doors open. I had "Breakfast of Champions" in my work bag. I had been re-reading it that day, amazed at how funny and vital it still was after all this time. I was enjoying the summer breeze, enjoying my gin and tonic, and one shoe was dangling off my bare foot. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that familiar face from the dust jackets of so many of my books. It was Vonnegut, shuffling down 2nd Avenue, puffing a cigarette.
I did a double take.
A triple take.
This was my chance! Emboldened by the booze I rifled through my bag, grabbed the book and started galloping to catch up with him, one shoe on and one shoe off.
But as I neared him, saw that mop of hair bouncing up and down, the trail of smoke behind him, I stopped.
I didn't really need him to sign my book. He'd had such an influence on my life that he'd already left an imprint. The signature would only be redundant.
So thank you Mr. Vonnegut, for legitimizing my crazy dreams.
You will be greatly missed.
"You must be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be."