By Dick Cummins
Dick Cummins is a regular contributor to this blog. This remembrance is adapted from a piece originally published in the anthology, Word By Word (The University of Iowa Program in Creative Writing; Dick Cummins © 2011).
Kurt who? The first time I saw Kurt Vonnegut at Iowa I had no idea who Kurt Vonnegut was. And neither did anyone else back in 1965 really, including KV himself, if you believe his biographer.
Charles Shields finished And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life in 2011 and quotes KV in a letter home to his wife, after he’d been on the Iowa campus a week: “…Paul Engle (IWW director) didn’t know me…hadn’t heard of me…didn’t read (me) …that kind of crap. But somebody out here did and assured him that I was indeed a writer.”
It was Indian summer in Iowa City and classes would be starting in a week. The Kurt Vonnegut I’d never heard of was looking through the window of an unoccupied store between Joe’s and Hamburg Inn Number One. His hair was cropped close then, not the finger-in-a-socket, latter-day Mark Twain mop he cultivated in the ‘70s. Curious, I stepped over and we looked through the window together.
“Wonder what happens when they put somebody’s head in one of those?” he said, thinking aloud.
We were looking at a room full of old beehive hair dryers in storage.
“Think they have to do with hair styling salons,” I offered.
“Bet if the government didn’t like what you were saying, they’d style your hair in one all right,” he said grinning, and then he shambled on away toward the Pentacrest, legs and arms not quite synced up.
The Form and “Texture” of Fiction: Due to what I still think was an especially misguided error, I ended up in the graduate Iowa Writers’ Workshop Program in the fall of 1965 as a senior English major. This Pygmalion experiment was due to a nice letter I got from Elizabeth Hawes, a fiction editor at The New Yorker. Just for the hell of it I’d sent off a slush pile story to The New Yorker called “Christmas and the Dead Cat.” It was about a winter trip up to the little town of Peterson, Iowa over Christmas vacation where I had to meet the embittered grandparents of my summer bride and high school sweetheart, arriving in a fashionable they-all-take-nine-months-but-the-first-one muumuu.
I’d written the story for my Undergrad Fiction Workshop course and Ms. Hawes had returned it with an encouraging note; “…the vote was three to two against, but…” and went on about would I mind rearranging some scenes, leave out something perhaps and resubmit? Then she finished, enthusing, “I actually laughed out loud.”
I was over the moon. Later, when I showed the note to KV, paper clipped to the story, he snorted that he—actually wife Jane—had been sending his stories to The New Yorker for years, because they paid best, but he’d only got back their usual “Thanks no” form note.
“Have to admit I suffer from writer’s jealousy, Dick. When I see some rave review in The Times, then pick up the book and can’t even finish it, the idea that something that putrid is on a bestseller list, just because it got reviewed, drives me nuts!”
The writing workshop classrooms at Iowa were no Potemkin village; sure old Quonset huts left over from WWII military training but filled with talented young writers who would make names for themselves. That said, feeling like the red-headed stepson of the graduate writing program, I slouched into our first class and there was a familiar fellow leaning against the front desk. It was the tall man who was looking at surplus hair dryers next to Hamburg Inn, smoking an unfiltered Pall Mall, a brand that he pronounced “Pell Mells.” Later someone, maybe Ian Macmillan or Barry Kaplan, eponymously coronated the Pall Mall brand “Vonneguts” and a few classmates began smoking them affectedly.
Later KV renamed our class “The Form and Texture of Fiction,” “texture” to reflect his Socratic workbench approach to teaching the “trade” of writing he told Jane in another letter home. He said he didn’t know much about teaching literature, would leave that to the lit professors, but he did know something about making a living as a freelance writer, having done it for more than 15 years. His advice and instruction would be practical, not academic he said. We would read his assigned material from the viewpoint of an author trying to entertain readers; also perhaps, as he quaintly put it with a grin, “to change the world!”
Then he told us an amusing story, more of a joke really. It was about getting paid a couple of pennies a word by the sci-fi pulps when he was trying to put food on the table for his expanding family, selling magazine fiction and writing original paperbacks.
“If you’re getting two or three cents a word,” he said, “make your main character stutter. Stammering pays best!”
No knee slapper of course but we laughed and it broke the tension. He was a good guy, and funny. But KV did have a problem that first semester at the Workshop. His problem was that the blue collar approach to scribbling for pay was not deemed “literary” by some of our elite Eastern school remittance classmates—fellows who didn’t mind standing for more than a few pitchers of trust-funded Millers at The Mill.
Looking back now after 50 years I don’t remember many of the titles he assigned, but Celine’s Journey to the End of Night stands out because he loved the phrasing and Celine’s use of slang and even “the colloquial vulgarity” of the time he said. Then there was Candide, the Optimist. He loved Candide’s gradual disillusionment in the face of Dr. Pangloss’ cheery “…all is for the best and it’s the best of all possible worlds,” insipid optimism.
He also loved the fact that the book was immediately banned as it ridiculed the government, religion, theologians, the military and especially philosophers. Voltaire’s work was labeled “seditious,” “heretical,” and even “secular” by all the powers of the day he pointed out with what we immediately recognized as an aspirational grin.
By then we’d read all the Vonnegut we could get our hands on and Iowa Book & Supply was reordering his paperbacks due to curiosity-inspired demand. There was his first book, Player Piano, then Sirens of Titan, Mother Night and Cat’s Cradle, all futuristic and told with KV’s knack for time distortion and pangalactic plotting. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater had just come out in ’65 and was being ignored by reviewers as usual. I thought Rosewater was wonderful and decided that our I-write-for-a-living-to-hell-with-the-lit-crits mentor was a fine writer and Nietzsche with a funny bone. Someone in our class called him the “hopeful pessimist” and it stuck.
We liked KV. He was funny crazy, not crazy crazy, except when he seemed depressed and just disappeared sometimes after saying hello—or maybe he was just hung over. Then one day he came to class late, a little boozy.
“I just signed a three-book contract with Delacorte Press,” he told us. “The advance is for more money than the total I’ve made writing in my life! Three books,” he said despondently. “I signed a contract for three goddamn books… But what if I don’t have three books left in me? They’ll probably want their money back.”
Then, schmearing his “Pell Mell” butt out on the concrete Quonset floor, he left us sitting there, class dismissed. It wouldn’t be the last time.
“What can possibly be on our final?” John Casey asked as we headed for the Mill after our last Form class. We needed a pitcher or two to relieve our “hopeful pessimism” about what the hell could possibly be on a final test for KV’s course.
* * *
Our Final Exam – “Top This!” It was late January, the wind whipping a fine powder of snow in under the door. It was already ten after and KV was a no show for our final. We fidgeted and tilted back on our one-armed exam desks, let them fall back, fiddled with our bluebooks, tapped our pencils and waited. The steam radiator clunked and clanked behind us, the room smelling of wet heat and anxiety.
At quarter past the door banged open and Vonnegut roared in under full sail, snow swirling behind him. Obviously KV had insulated himself against the weather with some liquid cheer. Pushing the door closed with the heel of a gum-soled desert boot, he put a purple box down on the desk. We could see it was a child’s portable phonograph as he unclipped the hinged side speakers and plugged it in.
Without making eye contact he pulled off his comic opera Chinese infantry winter hat that made him three inches taller. No time to take off his coat—he was on a mission. Carefully sliding a 78 record out of its dust cover, he wriggled it onto the spindle and spun up the volume knob. There was a nickel Scotch taped to the tone arm.
“If you want to make a living as a writer,” KV shouted over the blaring phonograph, “YOU”LL HAVE TO TOP THIS!” Then pressing the fur hat back down on his head with one hand and pinching his coat closed in front with the other, he disappeared out into the snow, class dismissed.
The over-amped little speakers fuzzed and buzzed blasting out Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture at top volume. Finally John Casey reached over and pulled the plug, the overture distorting lower and lower until it finally moaned to a stop.
The Fall term at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was over.
On the way up to the Mill, we grumbled about what the hell kind of grade we could get for a final like that? But when we checked our grades at the beginning of the second semester, it turned out Vonnegut had given us all ‘A’s. Oddly, no one said a discouraging word about his creative testing techniques either, just in case he could still change his mind about those lovely ‘A’s, I suppose.
* * *
When Breakfast of Champions came out in 1973, I was teaching in the Florida Keys, low on money and living cheaply on a 23-foot sailboat in Tropical Marina. You could read Breakfast in less than an hour and I remembered KV’s comment that his publisher would probably want his advance back if he didn’t have three books left in him. Flipping back through Breakfast, I noticed the pages were menu-thick, the type a 12- or 14-point type and canyons of leaded white space separated lines.
There was a review excerpt on the back cover that mentioned the author had “… filled the book with some of his own felt-tip pen drawings, intending to illustrate various aspects of life on Earth.” These drawings included an anus (just an asterisk), flags, the date 1492, a beaver, a vagina, a flamingo, a severed index finger and an electric chair, each in the center of its own page. The excerpt continued, “The integration of these images into the narrative is a new literary device the author calls ‘visual writing.’”
Remembering his joke that if we were being paid by the word, it struck me that maybe larding up Breakfast with all these drawings should be called ‘visual stammering.’
“…So this book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I’ve thrown over my shoulders as I travel back in time…” KV wrote in the preface.
Then I realized he was probably warning us that he wasn’t very proud of this work—but that he had to write something—because he sure as hell wasn’t about to give back that $75,000 advance. My wife, a big KV fan at the time, was even more disappointed with Breakfast than I was. KV’s success with Slaughterhouse had allowed Delacorte to sell it for $7.95, a top shelf price for a hardback in ‘73 and we were on a teaching and waitressing budget, struggling under school debts.
“I feel cheated!” she said, tossing Breakfast to the foot of our bed, just a pad in the forepeak of the little live-aboard. Some nights my wife didn’t even take $7.95 home in tips.
I read in Shields’ bio that after the “Ka-BOOM” success of Slaughterhouse (his daughter Edie’s words) our hopeful pessimist had a serious bout of depression and even attempted suicide. Maybe being expected to come up with another book right after Slaughterhouse was partially to blame, and of course the breakup of his marriage to high school sweetheart Jane wasn’t helpful either. I remember a comment he made in “Form” once, something about if you’d just published Gone With the Wind, what the hell could you possibly write next? Well, the self-conscious Breakfast obviously.
* * *
Driving home last week, stuck in traffic on the I-5, I was thinking about the Workshop and KV—remembering one of his best lines: “We are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anyone tell you different.” That was our iconoclastic, but hopeful Nietzsche, the often gloomy-Gus philosopher with a funny bone.
* * *
On November 11, 1999, an asteroid was named “Vonnegut 25399” in KV’s honor. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/25399_Vonnegut I thought about “25399” and wondered if maybe it was headed our way, on a collision course with Mother Earth. Then I had an idea. What if some of his former students started a profitable new religion while the asteroid loomed toward doomed Earth? KV has already given us the perfect name:
“Vonnegut’s Planetary Gospel of ‘God The Utterly Indifferent,’ Reformed, The Right Reverend Kilgore Trout Presiding.” I think he’d get a kick out it.
* * *
What’s the best advice you’ve gleaned from a writer? What tips would you offer other writers?