Kurt Vonnegut wrote a "special message" to readers of the Franklin Library's edition of his book "Slaughterhouse Five," a modern classic that, by now, has long been considered an essential to teaching and understanding modern literature.
It began thus: "This is a book about something that happened to me a long time ago (1944) -- and the book is now something else that happened to me a long time ago (1969.)"
He was writing in 1978 which is, from the vantage point of 2011, yet another "long time ago."
"Time marches on," wrote Vonnegut back then in sardonic tribute to a media catchphrase of his youth, "and the key event in this book, which is the fire-bombing of Dresden, is now a fossilized memory, sinking ever deeper into the tar-pit of history. If American schoolchildren have heard of it at all, they are surely in doubt as to whether it happened in World War One or Two. Nor do I think they should care much
"The Dresden atrocity [in World War II], tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is.
"One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I'm in."
There are whole careers by more respected novelists that I sometimes think I'd trade for the moral bluntness of that "special message" on "Slaughterhouse Five."
It is an axiom of literature and life in 2011 that art has never made anyone a better person. And to the degree that it's almost certainly true that many of those deciding to bomb Libya, Afghanistan, etc. -- including the president of the United States -- were quite likely to have read and sworn by "Slaughterhouse Five," it's not an easy precept to argue with.
Then again, it could also be academe's way of excusing its own impotence -- or, perhaps, confessing to the despair intrinsic to the effort. (Leslie Fiedler chucklingly used to quote Lenin's remark about the first responsibility of a revolutionary as also being the first responsibility of a teacher: "Patiently to explain.")
To which one can't help hearing the fiercely sardonic moralism of Vonnegut's tone -- "some business I'm in."
Some business indeed. And thank God for him.
A good argument could be made that in his time, he was both our era's Mark Twain and the father of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert still to come (whose pitiless truths exposing "truthiness" may be versions of the "Some business I'm in" echoing inside their heads).
Another good argument -- for those who like arguing -- could be made that this new book from the Library of America is the definitive Kurt Vonnegut, the writer whose experiences in World War II -- like those of his friend Joseph Heller -- made him one of the greatest writers of the Vietnam Era, and the progenitor of our own.
This, it seems to me, is the essential Vonnegut -- "Cat's Cradle," "God Bless You Mr. Rosewater," "Slaughterhouse Five," "Breakfast of Champions" and three stories "Welcome to the Monkey House," "Fortitude" and "The Big Space F---."
Those Vonnegutians unable to quell their own contrarian preferences might militate for earlier works, sci-fi and otherwise, like "The Sirens of Titan," "Mother Night" and "Player Piano" as well as the later novel "Jailbird."
But there's no question that the contents of this book -- and, as well, the typically thorough, even revelatory biographical chronology at the end from editor Sidney Offit -- comprise the reason why Vonnegut will always matter hugely in American literature outside of time and fashion and fad.
I read it in chronological order as presented, thinking it entertaining and minor at first but peculiarly central to everything by the time of Vonnegut's aside "some business I'm in." From the "Ice Nine" that is dropped into the ocean and ends the world in "Cat's Cradle," to the author setting his fictional character free at the end of "Breakfast of Champions" with a giant, hand-drawn "etc." Vonnegut presents his readers with a stubborn Midwestern innocence and insistence on virtue, which is, if viewed one way, certainly sophomoric and, viewed another, possibly noble.
If Vonnegut is the modern most commonly compared to Twain, he is far from alone. The new book by "humorist" Roy Blount Jr. (Vonnegut, coincidentally, also arrived in print as a "junior" once upon a time -- a declaration of American heritage, right in his very authorial signature) is a sequel to his previous "Alphabet Juice," a glossary from abacus to zythum.
Which latter we should know was "an Egyptian beer brewed from malt and wheat, no hops." And that gives Blount the opportunity to do small comic variations on the word "hops," including the Oxford English Dictionary's entry on what bunnies do. And to say "here's hopping we meet now and then, maybe in Alphabest Juice."
I'm there, I'm there.
Jeff Simon is The News' Arts and Books Editor.
> AMERICAN LETTERS
Novels and Stories: 1963-1973
By Kurt Vonnegut
Library of America
851 pages, $35
Alpha Better Juice Or the Joy of Text
By Roy Blount Jr.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
283 pages, $26