Vonnegut at 33,000 Feet

Saved again by literature on a trip from hell. Well, not hell yet, just some upper circle of purgatory in which severe weather rumbles out through the U.S. air traffic system in search of victims. My purgatorial circle was a runway hold in Albuquerque, followed by the resulting travel carnage at O’Hare. In this case, my rescuer is Vonnegut, a gift from Nora on the occasion of my 44th birthday.

She’s given me Vonnegut before, and seems to grasp his significance. On Christmas round about 1973 or so, my sister, Lisa, gave me Breakfast of Champions, which changed my life in unaccountable ways. I holed up with the book all afternoon Christmas and into the next day, and came out the other side convicted to writing.

I gave that book away – to Lisa as a wedding present – so Nora a couple of years ago gave me a new copy of Breakfast of Champions, and I read it fresh with whatever wisdom I’ve acquired in the decades since. It held up well. I ended up thinking Vonnegut is wrong in fundamental ways, all dark determinism I simply can’t embrace. But he is funnier, if anything, than when I read him a quarter century ago, and the funadamental insight I had then endured, richer for the years.

The insight is this: The written word is written by someone. The book has an author. A writer has a voice.

The book is a collection of early Vonnegut short stories, and it is interesting precisely because it does not have that voice I came to know so well. There are sparks of it here and there, but it is mostly just workmanlike prose, solid and often funny, economical and sometimes imperfect – a writer in the process of acquiring the voice that later so change me.

I finally made it to Cleveland. And so it goes.