Kurt Vonnegut was already fairly famous by the time I became a fan — which would have been in my late teens — but I still felt like someone who had discovered a cool, underground band that no one else was into. His books weren’t quite science fiction, and weren’t quite fantasy, but a weird mish-mash of genres, complete with hand-drawn illustrations of bums and other things. They were strange, and funny, and fantastic.
I found out that Vonnegut had died by reading my feeds, from a post at Paul Kedrosky’s blog. I knew that he was elderly and not well, and therefore his death didn’t come as a total surprise — just as Warren Zevon’s didn’t come as a total surprise, since he had cancer — but it still hit me hard. The world was a lot more fun with both of those guys in it. And while I never made the connection until a long time later, Vonnegut books were a lot like Zevon songs: irreverent, and yet filled with beautiful imagery and ideas; poignant and funny, sometimes goofy, always rebellious — almost like free-form poetry.
As I said on Paul’s blog, I would put books like Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions and Cat’s Cradle up against almost any book published in the past 50 years. I have read them and re-read them and they just keep getting better every time. Some people have no doubt read his books and mistaken Vonnegut’s simplicity and irreverence for slapstick, and many authors have tried to reproduce that tone and come off sounding like idiots.
But Vonnegut always had a point — sometimes a funny one, and sometimes an uncomfortable one — and he made it by using the strange and the fantastic as a mirror to show us our true selves. (10 Zen Monkeys has an interesting story about one of the TV screenplays Vonnegut wrote that was turned into a tele-play with Sammy Davis Jr.)