At 78, Still Shaking up the Establishment
By David Abel | Globe Staff | 5/05/2001
NORTHAMPTON -- He should be dead by now.
America's most cheerfully dour author is instead sitting anonymously on a stoop, staring blankly as a stream of tongue- and eyebrow-pierced students shuffle past, few of whom seem to recognize the old man bundled this spring morning in a rumpled trench coat and wool cap pulled over his ears.
Kurt Vonnegut survived the Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany, in World War II and a fire last year that gutted his apartment. Now the craggy-faced novelist is whiling away his time at Smith College, teaching undergraduates not yet born when his novels, plays, and short stories began setting the standard for skewering authority and mocking the self-important.
For much of the past year, for a few hours a week, the grouchy hero to generations has sat in a small, dreary office hidden in the stacks of Smith's main library and waited for students. The only clue the old man inside might actually be the author of "Slaughterhouse Five" and "Cat's Cradle" is a red bumper sticker taped to the door that reads: "God is coming and is she pissed."
Despite his apparent anonymity, Vonnegut - whose term as writer-in-residence ends this month - has managed to raise a bit of a ruckus on campus. Many schools, including Smith before he arrived, he grouses, "have a most incomplete collection of my wonderful work." The author has since done his best to fill the gaps. Over the past year, he has spontaneously presented librarians with specially bound books, refusing to fill out the typical paperwork and declaring, "I'm Kurt Vonnegut and this is a book by Kurt Vonnegut."
There was some ambivalence at Smith before the college invited him for the academic year. A few English professors wondered what they would do with him. Could he teach a regular class? Would he ridicule the faculty? Would 18- to 22-year-old women who've grown up with the Internet relate to a 78-year-old man whose worldview was shaped by the barbarism of World War II?
"There was some doubt that we could find a traditional role for him," says Dean Flower, an English professor who has since befriended Vonnegut. "He's so famous for his irreverence. Some on the faculty worried he would satirize us and mock the value of classroom teaching."
The concerns proved unwarranted - more or less. Vonnegut certainly has derided the English department. In a public lecture to thousands of students and faculty, he joked, "You can't tell where a writer is going to be, except it's unlikely it will be in the English department."
But he has also spent hours with students, critiquing their stories, dishing out unsolicited advice on life, and answering questions about his work, which some of their professors have spent careers trying to understand.
Now, as he prepares to return to New York, the campus oddity lights up one of the day's many Pall Malls and jokes in his own morbidly slapstick way about a lawsuit he's planning. It's against the tobacco company that makes the unfiltered cigarettes he smokes with such conscious abandon: "They promised to kill me on the package," he complains with a smile, "and they haven't done it yet."
They almost did. The prisoner of war who survived the incineration of Dresden nearly died in a blaze of his own making last year. A cigarette he left in an ashtray torched much of his East Side Manhattan brownstone.
The fire, which the one-time volunteer firefighter tried to extinguish on his own, left Vonnegut in a hospital bed for nearly three weeks suffering from smoke inhalation. Needing time to recuperate, the author moved to Northampton, where several of his children and grandchildren live, and accepted an offer to spend two semesters at Smith.
Academia may not be the ideal place for a crotchety writer waiting to die. In fact, Vonnegut has never been fully accepted at the nation's elite schools. His books are often pigeonholed as "too popular" or "too easy," he says, and there are few college courses that treat his work with the weight conferred upon contemporaries such as John Updike and Saul Bellow.
But for all those at Smith who may scoff at his work, this is also a man who has charmed readers by making them laugh about horrors like the Holocaust or the Vietnam War.
For Nora Crow, an English professor who teaches satire at Smith and has been assigning Vonnegut to students since 1971, the opportunity to have Vonnegut visit her class is like a basketball coach bringing in Michael Jordan for a practice or a historian having Winston Churchill over to chat with students.
Ksenija Broks, a senior, chased Vonnegut down after he spoke at one of her classes. "It took a couple of beers and a few cigarettes in me before I had enough nerve to go up to him," she says. "The prospect of talking to Kurt Vonnegut was nothing other than scary."
The English major wanted to know what he meant when, just after leaving her satire seminar, he popped his head back in the door and gave students this cryptic message: "It's all a practical joke."
Eventually, with a slight buzz, she got her answer. "Literature is, and all the arts are, and even the Mona Lisa is a practical joke - there's no woman there, and yet, people care," Vonnegut told her in a meeting. "The practical joke is making people think something is going on which isn't really going on. A book is a practical joke or it doesn't work."
Mary Ann Krisa, another senior majoring in English, didn't resort to drink before meeting Vonnegut. But that didn't mean the 21-year-old wasn't nervous to hear one of her favorite authors critique her story. "I couldn't have been more intimidated," she says. It didn't help when she found his office. It was eerie. The lights were off, the shades down, the walls completely bare, and all he had in the room was a copy of her paper and a pencil.
When she walked in, Vonnegut said, "I'm glad you showed up. It seems the students aren't interested in meeting me."
They discussed her story for a while, an autobiographical piece she describes as a heart-rending account of her grandmother's death. Vonnegut found it too gushy. He gave her this advice: "Did you ever think of making your grandmother insane?"
Not every aspiring writer has been starstruck. Like a lot of students at Smith, MaryAnne Van Tyne barely knew Vonnegut's work before he came to campus. The 21-year-old junior applied for one of the few spots in his class at the last minute.
But she quickly realized her new professor was different, a bit more blunt than other professors, and definitely not an old windbag. "He talked a lot about drinking and bars," she says. "It was really refreshing because he's not PC at all. At Smith, there is an idea that you don't want to offend a woman's image. I guess he's reached a point in his life where he doesn't care and he'll just say whatever."
Of course, age has nothing to do with it. Vonnegut has always found a certain poetry in vulgarity, and his language hasn't been muted by the tacit taboos of the ivory tower.
And that has stirred a bit of discomfort at Smith. During his public lecture last fall, which he titled "How to get a job like mine" or "A performance with chalk on blackboard," Vonnegut strayed into forbidden territory. After getting laughs mocking the National Rifle Association and drubbing the Internet, the legendary technophobe told a self-effacing story about how he lusts for an Indian woman who works at a Manhattan grocery store and wonders whether, like dentures, she puts the jewel she wears between her eyes in a glass of water at night.
More than a few students gasped. The mix of laughter and shock sparked a staff editorial in the student newspaper headlined "Deify Celebs Much, Smith?" "Why did offended audience members feel compelled to tolerate Kurt Vonnegut saying such things, however the statements were intended, when they would have walked out on anyone else who uttered the same things?" the paper fumed, adding: "How many of you read your first Vonnegut book in August?"
Smith's writer-in-residence laughed when asked about the tizzy his comments caused. Then he got serious. "I'll say whatever I want; that's the price of my freedom," Vonnegut says. "If it hurts someone's feelings, too bad! That's the way it goes."
It isn't just students who have grown uneasy with the novelist's impolitic anecdotes. When he showed up in an old sweater with holes in the elbows to lecture in Elliot Fratkin's anthropology class, the professor remembers squirming a bit when Vonnegut said beauty is everywhere, including "a young coed leaning over to grab a book."
"A lot of us just looked down on the ground and wondered, `Where is he going?' " he says. "At Smith, it's not especially popular to talk about the beauty of the opposite sex."
Vonnegut has made more of his time at Smith than stirring up trouble. Over the past year, the author has read poems and told jokes at local cafes, scatted as the lead vocalist of a band he called "Special K and His Crew" in the city's annual talent show, exhibited what he calls his "new-cubist" artwork at a local gallery, and helped a local bar brew a beer his grandfather made more than a century ago. He has also been doing something he promised not to do: writing a new novel he's calling "If God Were Alive Today."
Vonnegut has written a last novel before - he even vowed in the prologue of his 1997 novel "Timequake" that he was finally finished. "Johannes Brahms quit composing symphonies when he was 55. Enough!" he wrote. "American male novelists have done their best work by then. Enough! Fifty-five is a long time ago for me now. Have pity!"
One recent morning, after lecturing a class reading about the absurdities of religion in "Cat's Cradle," the scraggly-haired author lights up another Pall Mall and explains in his half-joking, half-serious way why he broke his pledge in "Timequake."
"I didn't know," he says with a dose of light-hearted melancholy. "I thought I was going to die."
Many of his friends and family are now dead - and that has deeply affected him. But there is a more honest reason why Vonnegut is writing another book: He can't stop writing. If he did, it might really kill him.
"Writers are very lucky. They can treat their neuroses every day," he says. "When writers crack up, when they really end up in the nut house, is when they can't do it anymore. The treatment stops."
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com.
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