Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Day I Met Kurt Vonnegut

I met Kurt Vonnegut through Joseph Heller. Yes, I traveled in those kinds of literary circles—but only for a day. It was a day that will take pretty severe Alzheimer's to forget.

While I would not view my life as Vonnegut once described the American experience: "an impossibly tough-minded experiment in loneliness", I am, as many judge themselves, shy. I've encountered obstacles and missed opportunities because of it. Like most shy people, I try to compensate.

So it was a supreme act of compensation when I hesitantly approached the desk of my 'Modern Novel' professor after class to ask if I could attend a cocktail party for Joseph Heller. I explained that I was writing a paper for his class about the time element in Catch 22 and needed clarification on a particular sequence of events. I didn't tell him that after reading the book two or three times and studying it as if it were the Paris Metro map, I had discovered an inconsistency—as if that meant something. If you are familiar with the book, you may remember that temporal events are as confusing as war-time morality. It is central to the structure of the novel—but only because it is tangled. For some strange reason that I can only attribute to my future accounting sensibilities, I felt that straightening out the jumbled mess chronologically would reveal some higher meaning. Wait, who am I trying to kid? I analytically mapped out every incident repeated ad infinitum in the book and found a chronological error, and thought that by confronting the great Joseph Heller, I would be hailed with English esteem everywhere as the one who unraveled Catch 22. Think about that for a second. I wanted to unravel Catch 22, a book I loved, as if it were some sterile scientific entrails—perhaps Snowden's. Well, maybe that is the apprehensively meticulous way a shy person approaches life.

Maybe the truth lay somewhere in between. I did love the book. I did find what appeared to be an error in the chronology of events. I did want to ask Joseph Heller about my discovery. But mostly I desperately wanted to meet and talk with the man who wrote this wondrous book that couldn't be read in the library because I would vocally burst out laughing.

Something about my story sounded sincere or at least elicited pity, for he gave me his permission and the address of the professor's house where the selective gathering would take place. The party was an afternoon affair held prior to Mr. Heller's talk on campus at Washington Hall, the 130 year old auditorium that sits to the right of the administration building, the one with the gold dome. The day was Thursday, April 4, 1968, my final year of college.

Let me back track a bit. This was 1968, the year of student demonstrations (of which, thus far, we had failed miserably), campus riots, the My Lai massacre, the Tet offensive, Robert Kennedy's assassination, LBJ's stepping down, the Chicago Democratic Convention, and a whole series of circumstances which would turn society on its head. Lost as a consequential event, however, was the inaugural Notre Dame Sophomore Literary Festival, billed as the 2nd annual—a Vonnegut-ism, surely. The year before, a student from Mississippi had put together a literary event to celebrate William Faulkner. But, for all practical purposes, the 2nd Annual Notre Dame Sophomore Literary Festival was the first of its kind—one which would bring every major writer to campus for the next 25 years.

During this week of March 31, Norman Mailer, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller, William Buckley Jr., Wright Morris, and, yes, Kurt Vonnegut spoke on campus. As English professor Don Costello said years later, "Of course, it couldn't be done. That's the beauty of the naïve sophomores. They were too naïve to know it couldn't work." Both the Saturday Review and the New York Times ran articles about that first (2nd annual) event. The festival's run lasted until 1996 when authors expected more for personal appearances. Recently, a more modest version has been revived.

The 1968 festival, by whatever name, was the child of sophomore, John Mroz, the Steve Jobs of Notre Dame, if this excerpt is any indication:

"We were pretty aggressive, to say the least," said Mroz, describing trips out to New York and California where the students literally knocked on the authors' doors to persuade them to come to the festival. 
The famously reclusive Ellison was stunned to see a group of college kids on his doorstep. 
"He said, `I told you `No' by letter, I told you `No' by phone and now here you are at my door in New York!'" remembered Mroz. "But we got him to come."
Now I was coming too. I was elated and intimidated. I carefully crafted my supposed error in the book's time sequence and wrote it out on a slip of paper so I would not be confused in the asking. It was not straight forward and depended on evidence from a few different passages. I was getting more apprehensive by the moment.

At the appropriate time with the appropriate English-lit style sport coat, I handed the taxi cab driver the address. Soon I was in front of the small suburban home not far from campus. As soon as I entered I could see who must be Joseph Heller. He stood in the living room surrounded by university types—faculty and friends, I supposed, and the more diligent, less shy, students. In fact I remember more students than adults at the party; perhaps 20 or 30 people in all; maybe less. It was definitely an informal, relaxed occasion. Heller was dressed like a New York banker in a dark suit. He looked good, tanned for April, and was confidently fielding questions and comments from a circle of about a dozen admirers. He appeared to be holding court, articulate, and enjoying it.

I flittered around the outside circle catching bits of conversation. When not about his book, they centered around the war and socio-political issues—nothing new, curious, or radical, at least for the times. He was different than I expected for the author of maybe the funniest, darkest, most eccentric book I had read—three times. The atmosphere was just too encouragingly normal. The more I thought about trying to frame my question so it sounded intelligent, meaningful and respectful, the more reticent I became. Everyone here knew the emperor had splendid clothes. Why bring up the possibility of a small rip? After a while I defeatedly slunk off to the kitchen. Perhaps a drink would help.

The smallish, narrow kitchen was another world. There, in the corner on a stool slouched over the counter—as far away from the living room court as one could possibly get without leaving the house, sat a tall, disheveled man—the jester in Heller's retinue. His sport coat could have passed for one of our old, worn, food encrusted diner jackets ironically required for dining hall entry each night. He wore loose baggy pants and shirt, longish frizzy hair, and held a glass with a bottle beside him on the counter. And he chain smoked. Yes, he had comfortably dissolved my entire court metaphor into a bar scene. No one but students grouped around this man, and only three or four of them. Now this, obviously, was a writer.

I was immediately drawn to this character who I soon found out was Kurt Vonnegut—not that I knew anything about him at the time. Unfortunately, the kitchen was too narrow with a refrigerator of drinks inconveniently placed for me to get close enough to easily join in the conversation. I could scarcely follow it. But it was nothing like that in the living room. It sounded like the author was talking about spacemen—little ones, I think. Looking back, it was probably Tralfamadorians, but I hadn't read any of Vonnegut's books at this point. Rest assured he was as crazy, imaginative, and gentle as you picture him, but always with a touch of depression. I can barely remember the conversation, but if I had to guess, he touched on aliens, time travel, war, human cruelty and stupidity. I might have added a comment or two, but perhaps I was too shy to even do that. I mostly listened. Joseph Heller could be mistaken for a Wall Street banker; Kurt Vonnegut could only be the writer of his works.

If I was slightly disappointed at the normalcy of Joseph Heller, I was more than pleased with this strange, quirky author. He was neurotic enough to make me start to feel confident again about asking my question. Joseph Heller, I'm sure, would have attempted an answer; Kurt Vonnegut would have made an ironic joke out of it.

And then the news came on the TV and everything became subdued. The party was breaking up anyway as Joseph Heller had a talk to give. He wondered now if he should, but everything had been planned. It was the 2nd Annual Sophomore Literary Festival after all.

Fortunately, there was room in a car going to back to campus, and I grabbed a ride. I hardly remember the talk at Washington Hall though I'm sure I sat through it. Now it felt as inconsequential as my desire to hammer out a time line. Heller read excerpts from Catch 22 and some from his new play, We Bombed in New Haven. Polite applause, and everyone left—weighed by the news.

The next day before class my teacher asked me if I had found the answer to my question. I was too shy to answer truthfully. I lied and said I did, and thanked the professor for letting me attend the party. Perhaps I had been too shy to ask Heller. Perhaps I realized that the question and answer resolved nothing. Perhaps my factual discrepancy actually enhanced the novel by bringing the muddle to life. No matter how jumbled, no novel could match the jumble of life. I had discovered that humanity mattered more than fact. I had discovered a crazier humanity, who would become my favorite author for years. So I lied and said I had gotten my answer. In truth, when I did write my paper, I left out my finding entirely. In truth, the answer lay in what I would later find voiced in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, "God never wrote a good play." Everything turned out differently than expected. Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead.


Big Myk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Big Myk said...

Great bit of writing. I'd say, the next stop for you is The New Yorker.

I've never seen Kurt Vonnegut in person, but Joseph Heller gave a talk at Fordham when I was there. Like you, I was thrilled by the opportunity to hear him talk. Unfortunately, by the time he was finished, I was totally convinced of the infinite monkey theorem -- that given an infinite amount of time, a monkey hitting random keys on a typewriter will re-create the complete works of Shakespeare. With Heller, it was more like, given an infinite number of mediocre writers trying their hand at literature, the chances are that one of them is going to bang out a truly great book.

Heller did absolutely nothing in the 45 minutes or so alotted to him but read passages from his books. Like, he'd say something about Dunbar and then read a paasage to illustrate the point. The pointlessness was almost unbearable.

It's interesting that both Heller and Vonnegut wrote perhaps their best books based on their World War II experiences. For Heller, of course, it was Catch-22. For Vonnegut, it was Slaughterhouse Five.

Vonnegut fought an ending war against the use of semicolons; his famous line: “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Martin said...

great story Jim, I remember you telling me about this before but in less detail

James R said...

Yes, it was some Vonnegut books sitting around your house and you mentioning that you had read a lot of his books that reminded me of that day in college and telling that story.

Later, because you seemed interested in the story, I started to set it down and tried to remembered it better (as well as looking up some details). So really the story was for you. I surprised myself a bit that there was more to the story. As you recall I left out the part that it was the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. So it is doubly your story, Martin.

James R said...

Oh, and you gave be the best compliment ever. As much I a really appreciated Myk's compliment (thanks Myk), I would rather have someone say "great story" than "great writing".