Slapstick or Lonesome No More!, p.1Kurt Vonnegut / Science Fiction / Humor / History & Fiction
AMERICA'S GREATEST SATIRIST
KURT VONNEGUT IS ...
"UNIQUE ... one of the writers who map our landscapes for us, who give names to the places we know best."
The New York Times Book Review
"OUR FINEST BLACK-HUMORIST .... We laugh in self-defense."
--The Atlantic Monthly
"AN UNIMITATIVE AND INIMITABLE SOCIAL SATIRIST."
"A MEDICINE MAN, CONJURING UP FANTASIES TO WARN THE WORLD."
--The Charlotte Observer
"A CAUSE FOR CELEBRATION."
"A LAUGHING PROPHET OF DOOM."
--The New York Times
BY KURT VONNEGUT
A Man Without a Country
Armageddon in Retrospect
Bagombo Snuff Box
Between Time and Timbuktu
Breakfast of Champions
Canary in a Cat House
Fates Worse Than Death
God Bless You, Mr. Kevorkian
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
Happy Birthday, Wanda June
Like Shaking Hands with God (with Lee Stringer)
Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction
The Sirens of Titan
Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons
Welcome to the Monkey House
Dedicated to the memory of
Arthur Stanley Jefferson and Norvell Hardy,
two angels of my time.
"Call me but love, and I'll be new baptiz'd ..."
THIS IS THE CLOSEST I will ever come to writing an autobiography. I have called it "Slapstick" because it is grotesque, situational poetry--like the slapstick film comedies, especially those of Laurel and Hardy, of long ago.
It is about what life feels like to me.
There are all these tests of my limited agility and intelligence. They go on and on.
The fundamental joke with Laurel and Hardy, it seems to me, was that they did their best with every test.
They never failed to bargain in good faith with their destinies, and were screamingly adorable and funny on that account.
There was very little love in their films. There was often the situational poetry of marriage, which was something else again. It was yet another test--with comical possibilities, provided that everybody submitted to it in good faith.
Love was never at issue. And, perhaps because I was so perpetually intoxicated and instructed by Laurel and Hardy during my childhood in the Great Depression, I find it natural to discuss life without ever mentioning love.
It does not seem important to me.
What does seem important? Bargaining in good faith with destiny.
I have had some experiences with love, or think I have, anyway, although the ones I have liked best could easily be described as "common decency." I treated somebody well for a little while, or maybe even for a tremendously long time, and that person treated me well in turn. Love need not have had anything to do with it.
Also: I cannot distinguish between the love I have for people and the love I have for dogs.
When a child, and not watching comedians on film or listening to comedians on the radio, I used to spend a lot of time rolling around on rugs with uncritically affectionate dogs we had.
And I still do a lot of that. The dogs become tired and confused and embarrassed long before I do. I could go on forever.
One time, on his twenty-first birthday, one of my three adopted sons, who was about to leave for the Peace Corps in the Amazon Rain Forest, said to me, "You know--you've never hugged me."
So I hugged him. We hugged each other. It was very nice. It was like rolling around on a rug with a Great Dane we used to have.
Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous.
I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, "Please--a little less love, and a little more common decency."
My longest experience with common decency, surely, has been with my older brother, my only brother, Bernard, who is an atmospheric scientist in the State University of New York at Albany.
He is a widower, raising two young sons all by himself. He does it well. He has three grownup sons besides.
We were given very different sorts of minds at birth. Bernard could never be a writer. I could never be a scientist. And, since we make our livings with our minds, we tend to think of them as gadgets--separate from our awarenesses, from our central selves.
We have hugged each other maybe three or four times--on birthdays, very likely, and clumsily. We have never hugged in moments of grief.
The minds we have been given enjoy the same sorts of jokes, at any rate--Mark Twain stuff, Laurel and Hardy stuff.
They are equally disorderly, too.
Here is an anecdote about my brother, which, with minor variations, could be told truthfully about me:
Bernard worked for the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York, for a while, where he discovered that silver iodide could precipitate certain sorts of clouds as snow or rain. His laboratory was a sensational mess, however, where a clumsy stranger could die in a thousand different ways, depending on where he stumbled.
The company had a safety officer who nearly swooned when he saw this jungle of deadfalls and snares and hair-trigger booby traps. He bawled out my brother.
My brother said this to him, tapping his own forehead with his fingertips: "If you think this laboratory is bad, you should see what it's like in here."
And so on.
I told my brother one time that whenever I did repair work around the house, I lost all my tools before I could finish the job.
"You're lucky," he said. "I always lose whatever I'm working on."
But, because of the sorts of minds we were given at birth, and in spite of their disorderliness, Bernard and I belong to artificial extended families which allow us to claim relatives all over the world.
He is a brother to scientists everywhere. I am a brother to writers everywhere.
This is amusing and comforting to both of us. It is nice.
It is lucky, too, for human beings need all the relatives they can get--as possible donors or receivers not necessarily of love, but of common decency.
When we were children in Indianapolis, Indiana, it appeared that we would always have an extended family of genuine relatives there. Our parents and grandparents, after all, had grown up there with shoals of siblings and cousins and uncles and aunts. Yes, and their relatives were all cultivated and gentle and prosperous, and spoke German and English gracefully.
They were all religious skeptics, by the way.
They might roam the wide world over when they were young, and often have wonderful adventures. But they were all told sooner or later that it was time for them to come home to Indianapolis, and to settle down. They invariably obeyed--because they had so many relatives there.
There were good things to inherit, too, of course--sane businesses, comfortable homes and faithful servants, growing mountains of china and crystal and silverware, reputations for honest dealing, cottages on Lake Maxinkuckee, along whose eastern shore my family once owned a village of summer homes.
But the delight the family took in itself was permanently crippled, I think, by the sudden American hatred for all things German which unsheathed itself when this country entered the First World War, five years before I was born.
Children in our family were no longer taught German. Neither were they encouraged to admire German music or literature or art or science. My brother and sister and I were raised as though Germany were as foreign to us as Paraguay.
We were deprived of Europe, except for what we might learn of it at school.
We lost thousands of years in a very short time--and then tens of thousands of American dollars after that, and the summer cottages and so on.
And our family became a lot less interesting, especially to itself.
So--by the time the Great Depression and a Second World War were over, it was easy for my brother and my sister and me to wander away from Indianapolis.
And, of all the relatives we left behind, not one could think of a reason why we should come home again.
We didn't belong anywhere in particular any more. We were interchangeable parts in the American machine.
Yes, and Indianapolis, which had once had a way of speaking English all its own, and jokes and legends and poets and villains and heroes all its own, and galleries for its own artists, had itself become an interchangeable part in the American machine.
It was just another someplace where automobiles lived, with a symphony orchestra and all. And a race track.
My brother and I still go back for funerals, of course. We went back last July for the funeral of our Uncle Alex Vonnegut, the younger brother of our late father--almost the last of our old-style relatives, of the native American patriots who did not fear God, and who had souls that were European.
He was eighty-seven years old. He was childless. He was a graduate of Harvard. He was a retired life insurance agent. He was a co-founder of the Indianapolis Chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous.
His obituary in the Indianapolis Star said that he himself was not an alcoholic.
This denial was at least partly a nice-Nellyism from the past, I think. He used to drink, I know, although alcohol never seriously damaged his work or made him wild. And then he stopped cold. And he surely must have introduced himself at meetings of A. A. as all members must, with his name--followed by this brave confession: "I'm an alcoholic."
Yes, and the paper's genteel denial of his ever having had trouble with alcohol had the old-fashioned intent of preserving from taint all the rest of us who had the same last name.
We would all have a harder time making good Indianapolis marriages or getting good Indianapolis jobs, if it were known for certain that we had had relatives who were once drunkards, or who, like my mother and my son, had gone at least temporarily insane.
It was even a secret that my paternal grandmother died of cancer.
Think of that.
At any rate, if Uncle Alex, the atheist, found himself standing before Saint Peter and the Pearly Gates after he died, I am certain he introduced himself as follows:
"My name is Alex Vonnegut. I'm an alcoholic."
Good for him.
I will guess, too, that it was loneliness as much as it was a dread of alcoholic poisoning which shepherded him into A. A. As his relatives died off or wandered away, or simply became interchangeable parts in the American machine, he went looking for new brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces and uncles and aunts, and so on, which he found in A. A.
When I was a child, he used to tell me what to read, and then make sure I'd read it. It used to amuse him to take me on visits to relatives I'd never known I had.
He told me one time that he had been an American spy in Baltimore during the First World War, befriending German-Americans there. His assignment was to detect enemy agents. He detected nothing, for there was nothing to detect.
He told me, too, that he was an investigator of graft in New York City for a little while--before his parents told him it was time to come home and settle down. He uncovered a scandal involving large expenditures for the maintenance of Grant's Tomb, which required very little maintenance indeed.
I received the news of his death over a white, push-button telephone in my house in that part of Manhattan known as "Turtle Bay." There was a philodendron nearby.
I am still not clear how I got here. There are no turtles. There is no bay.
Perhaps I am the turtle, able to live simply anywhere, even underwater for short periods, with my home on my back.
So I called my brother in Albany. He was about to turn sixty. I was fifty-two.
We were certainly no spring chickens.
But Bernard still played the part of an older brother. It was he who got us our seats on Trans World Airlines and our car at the Indianapolis airport, and our double room with twin beds at a Ramada Inn.
The funeral itself, like the funerals of our parents and of so many other close relatives, was as blankly secular, as vacant of ideas about God or the afterlife, or even about Indianapolis, as our Ramada Inn.
So my brother and I strapped ourselves into a jet-propelled airplane bound from New York City to Indianapolis. I sat on the aisle. Bernard took the window seat, since he was an atmospheric scientist, since clouds had so much more to say to him than they did to me.
We were both over six feet tall. We still had most of our hair, which was brown. We had identical mustaches--duplicates of our late father's mustache.
We were harmless looking. We were a couple of nice old Andy Gumps.
There was an empty seat between us, which was spooky poetry. It could have been a seat for our sister Alice, whose age was halfway between mine and Bernard's. She wasn't in that seat and on her way to her beloved Uncle Alex's funeral, for she had died among strangers in New Jersey, of cancer--at the age of forty-one.
"Soap opera!" she said to my brother and me one time, when discussing her own impending death. She would be leaving four young boys behind, without any mother.
"Slapstick," she said.
She spent the last day of her life in a hospital. The doctors and nurses said she could smoke and drink as much as she pleased, and eat whatever she pleased.
My brother and I paid her a call. It was hard for her to breathe. She had been as tall as we were at one time, which was very embarrassing to her, since she was a woman. Her posture had always been bad, because of her embarrassment. Now she had a posture like a question mark.
She coughed. She laughed. She made a couple of jokes which I don't remember now.
Then she sent us away. "Don't look back," she said.
So we didn't.
She died at about the same time of day that Uncle Alex died--an hour or two after the sun went down.
And hers would have been an unremarkable death statistically, if it were not for one detail, which was this: Her healthy husband, James Carmalt Adams, the editor of a trade journal for purchasing agents, which he put together in a cubicle on Wall Street, had died two mornings before--on "The Brokers' Special," the only train in American railroading history to hurl itself off an open drawbridge.
Think of that.
This really happened.
Bernard and I did not tell Alice about what had happened to her husband, who was supposed to take full charge of the children after she died, but she found out about it anyway. An ambulatory female patient gave her a copy of the New York Daily News. The front page headline was about the dive of the train. Yes, and there was a list of the dead and missing inside.
Since Alice had never received any religious instruction, and since she had led a blameless life, she never thought of her awful luck as being anything but accidents in a very busy place.
Good for her.
Exhaustion, yes, and deep money worries, too, made her say toward the end that she guessed that she wasn't really very good at life.
Then again: Neither were Laurel and Hardy.
My brother and I had already taken over her household. After she died, her three oldest sons, who were between the ages of eight and fourteen, held a meeting, which no grownups could attend. Then they came out and asked that we honor their only two requirements: That they remain together, and that they keep their two dogs. The youngest child, who was not at the meeting, was a baby only a year old or so.
From then on, the three oldest were raised by me and my wife, Jane Cox Vonnegut, along with our own three children, on Cape Cod. The baby, who lived with us for a while, was adopted by a first cousin of their father, who is now a judge in Birmingham, Alabama.
So be it.
The three oldest kept their dogs.
I remember now what one of her sons, who is named "Kurt" like my father and me, asked me as we drove from New Jersey to Cape Cod with the two dogs in back. He was about eight.
We were going from south to north, so where we were going was "up" to him. There were just the two of us. His brothers had gone ahead.
"Are the kids up there nice?" he said.
"Yes, they are," I replied.
He is an airline pilot now.
They are all something other than children now.
One of them is a goat farmer on a mountaintop in Jamaica. He has made come true a dream of our sister's: To live far from the madness of cities, with animals for friends. He has no telephone or electricity.
He is desperately dependent on rainfall. He is a ruined man, if it does not rain.
The two dogs have died of old age. I used to roll around with them on rugs for hours on end, until they were all pooped out.
Yes, and our sister's sons are candid now about a creepy business which used to worry them a lot: They cannot find their mother or their father in their memories anywhere--not anywhere.
The goat farmer, whose name is James Carmalt Adams, Jr., said this about it to me, tapping his forehead with his fingertips: "It isn't the museum, it should be."
The museums in children's minds, I think, automatically empty themselves in times of utmost horror--to protect the children from eternal grief.