'Year of Vonnegut' surprises legendary author
By Rick Callahan
INDIANAPOLIS — Kurt Vonnegut insists his writing days are over, although the literary legend is still indulging his creative powers by putting pen to paper.
As Vonnegut’s most recent book, “A Man Without a Country,” prepares to hit bookstores in paperback Jan. 16, he says he’s focusing on drawing the type of whimsical pen and ink figures that appear throughout that slim volume of essays.
The 84-year-old author is also reveling in his hometown’s declaration of 2007 as “The Year of Vonnegut” — an announcement he said left him “thunderstruck.”
The city’s exploration of Vonnegut’s iconoclastic works features a year’s worth of readings and forums designed to encourage people to visit libraries and to read — subjects near and dear to his heart.
“This Indianapolis thing, it’s a charming thing because it’s about books and it’s about reading. They’re able to build it around me, so I’m glad to be a convenient hitching post for that,” Vonnegut said in an interview from his home in New York City.
He’ll visit Indianapolis, where he was born and raised, for a free lecture April 27. The next day, he’ll officiate as a time-capsule containing one of his novels and works by other Indiana literary greats is sealed inside the new main library the city is building.
The author of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Cat’s Cradle” and nearly two dozen other books left Indianapolis shortly after graduating from Shortridge High School in 1940. But the Hoosier capital is mentioned in several of his works, and he returns periodically for lectures and visits.
Vonnegut, who has lived in New York for decades, said growing up in the Midwest offered him a rich and stimulating upbringing at which some New Yorkers might scoff.
“It was all here for me — music, science, people so smart you couldn’t believe it, people so dumb you couldn’t believe it, people so nice or so mean you couldn’t believe it,” he said in a voice left gravelly from years of smoking. “When I was a kid, there was plenty to do, and, more damn surprising, wonderful people.”
Vonnegut, the youngest of three children, hailed from German-American ancestors who enjoyed affluence before falling on hard times. His paternal grandfather was a prominent architect who designed several Indianapolis landmarks, including The Athenaeum — a sprawling, spired 1890s meeting house that is home to arts and civic groups and a popular German restaurant with an outdoor beer garden.
His family’s fortunes fell sharply during the Great Depression, when business dried up for his father, who was also an architect. His mother’s 1944 suicide and the 1958 deaths within a two-day span of his sister, Alice, from cancer, and her husband, John, in a New Jersey train accident left indelible marks on him.
Vonnegut and his first wife adopted three of the couple’s four children, while a cousin adopted the youngest child.
Majie Failey, who has known Vonnegut since they were about 15 and later married one of his closet childhood friends, believes Vonnegut’s humor and ability to poke fun at even the tragic elements of life helped him cope.
“I think his humor has carried him through a lot,” she said.
Failey said the offbeat sense of humor Vonnegut projects in their frequent phone calls still surprises her after seven decades of friendship.
“We call each other whenever anything pops into our heads and he’ll sometimes say just the darnedest things and you’ll go, `What did he say?”‘ she said. “He’s got a far-out wit that some people don’t understand and some people do.”
Failey will host a gathering at her Indianapolis home for Vonnegut and many of their surviving high school classmates during his April visit. The author, she said, is still treated like one of the gang.
“One of them came up to me the other day and said, `Vonnegut? For a whole year?”‘ she said, laughing. “He’s always going to be just one of their pals.”
Vonnegut, whose novels have mixed dark tragedy with humor and elements of social commentary, science fiction and autobiography, is regarded by many critics as a key influence in shaping 20th-century American literature. Many of his books remain on high school and college required reading lists, said Chris Cairo, director of project development at the Marion County Public Library in Indianapolis.
“He made a real impact in the 20th century,” Cairo said.
But Vonnegut insists “A Man Without a Country,” a sort of mini-memoir published in 2005, is his last contribution.
“I’ve said everything I have to say and I’m completely in print,” he said. “Look, I’m old. Joe Namath isn’t passing footballs in the crowds anymore. You ought to see what Mozart looks like by now. I’m old, for God’s sake — I’m terribly tired.”
On the Net:
Official Kurt Vonnegut Web site: http://www.vonnegut.com/