'I'd get up," mumbles Kurt Vonnegut with curmudgeonly cheer as he greets a lunch companion, "but I'm old."
At 82, and almost a decade past his self-declared date of retirement, age and futility are the primary tropes of any conversation with Vonnegut these days. When this lunch was arranged, just before he hung up the phone, he cracked, "Give me your number, in case I die." It makes for good comedy, of course, and precludes any sort of respectful comeback. But Vonnegut is serious, even if he can't resist the jokes. He speaks repeatedly of having finished his life's work and of the surprise of being still alive. And death is coming not just to him; in person and in the slim new volume of his collected recent essays entitled A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut pronounces a requiem for the Earth itself, saying the world is going to come to an end sooner or later, but most probably sooner.
Those taking the long view of Vonnegut's life and work will note that death has always haunted his novels and essays. In his late 40s, even, when he wrote his absurdist masterwork Slaughterhouse-Five, he described himself as, "an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls." He still smokes unfiltered Pall Malls and is still a proud old fart, but some of his memories are vaguer than they used to be, and he shows little interest in exploring them, anyway.
"I had reasonably hoped to be dead by now. It's embarrassing to keep on going," he explains with a faint wheeze, sitting in the back of a nearly empty old-fashioned French restaurant a few blocks from his Upper East Side townhouse. Edith Piaf is on the stereo, warbling La vie en rose. He evinces an almost childlike desire to impress. Lunching with a Canadian, he drops a couple of French words into his speech and, when ordering his meal, asks for, "the saumon."
In 1997, when he published his last novel, Timequake, Vonnegut announced he would no longer write fiction, in fact had no intention of writing anything for public consumption again. That was the year his beloved brother Bernie, 10 years his senior, died, and the loss left him feeling that, "I don't have anybody to show off for any more." The truth is, though, he continued to write. Two years later, he came out with a slim book of whimsical interviews with dead historical figures such as Isaac Asimov, Hitler and Shakespeare, and he has continued to plug away at a novel that will never be finished, entitled If God Were Alive Today. (Idea from the book: If God were alive today, he'd be an atheist.) A few years ago, he also began writing essays for the left-wing Chicago biweekly In These Times, which were compiled into the current book.
"As an actuarial matter, writers of fiction have done their best work by about the time they're 45, and I guess Tolstoy was an exception, and there have been some others, but anyway, friends of mine who've lived this long have customarily written crap. Just to have something to do," he explains.
Vonnegut wears a grey-green cardigan, tan slacks and white tennis shoes. He has long workman's hands, with fingers that are thick like dowels. In 1976, he described himself as having "the low-keyed amiability of an old family dog. In general his appearance is tousled: The long curly hair, mustache and sympathetic smile suggest a man at once amused and saddened by the world around him."
That description still holds true, though Vonnegut's face is now lined so sharply it could be a maquette for his own monument on Mount Rushmore. Something else: For decades, though he has been known variously as a science-fiction author, an experimental writer of postmodern narrative, and an essayist who has plumbed his own tragedies for material, many have seen him as following in Mark Twain's plainspoken humanist tradition. He gave his first-born, his only biological son, the name Mark. Now, Vonnegut bears a startling physical resemblance to Twain.
And like Twain, whom he once noted grew bitter toward the end of his life, Vonnegut is also more cynical than he has ever been. A Man Without a Country is shot through with despair for the Earth's poisoned fate and disappointment in the American body politic. Indeed, he says he considered an alternate title for the collection, The Fifty-First State, to evoke "the state of denial," which is, he says, America's natural state.
"I have a huge disappointment about what this country might have been instead of what it's become," he says. "You forget there was something great about the Great Depression. The president was Franklin Roosevelt, who cared generally about all of us. And things were getting better -- talk about audacity, giving women the power to vote, in 1919. It took a while for even women to adjust to it. Only now are they really getting the feeling of it. And then after the war when the civil-rights movement came in, that was exciting! So there were these huge improvements, where we were becoming what we always imagined ourselves to be. No shit, becoming that!"
But life is a series of cosmic disappointments and absurdities, which Vonnegut knows from first-hand experience. He saw his father's dreams of becoming a great architect foiled by fate and the Depression. His mother, who suffered from her own depression, killed herself on Mother's Day in 1944, when he was only 21. Nine months later, as a prisoner of war in Germany, he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden, which he later immortalized in Slaughterhouse-Five. His older sister Alice died of cancer at age 41, within 24 hours of her husband being killed in a train crash, leaving Vonnegut and his wife to adopt three of their children. After his son went off to British Columbia during the Vietnam War to start a commune, Mark went crazy and Vonnegut had to retrieve him and place him in an institution (which thankfully cured him). One of his daughters was briefly married to Geraldo Rivera. In the mid-1980s, Vonnegut himself attempted suicide, but failed. Who wouldn't see the world as a cosmic joke?
Even his own success is tinged with absurdity. "I never thought it was my destiny to be a writer. It just turned out it was the only way I could make a living," he says. "It was lucky that way, because I have survivor's syndrome, for a number of reasons. Obviously because of the firebombing of Dresden, but also all the really wonderful writers who've crashed and burned.
"I feel like a certain kind of horse's ass, like somebody born rich. I don't deserve it, and those who crashed and burned didn't deserve it, either. So I'm the asshole who broke the bank at Monte Carlo."
And he can't stop breaking the bank when he puts pen to paper. A Man Without a Country is on The New York Times extended bestseller list. But he's not sure its success means much of anything. "Nothing I can say can have any effect, except to say to somebody else, 'You're not alone.' That's as far as it goes," he says. "No political effect whatsoever." I remind him that his readers are clearly numerous and clearly hungry for anything he has to say. "Well, that's very nice, but it's politically meaningless. They have to have a majority, for God's sake." I tell him that, just because there wasn't a majority who voted against George W. Bush in the last election doesn't mean his words didn't have an effect; it just means they didn't have enough of an effect.
He pauses for a long time and then shakes his head dismissively. "I'm just the asshole who broke the bank at Monte Carlo," he replies, leaning back on his stock phrase.
And he'd just as soon have it all end. "I felt as I did when the Second World War ended: 'Please, I've done everything I'm supposed to do, can't I go home now?' " he says.
A truck out on the street honks its horn and Vonnegut looks toward the restaurant's entrance. His eyes seem to water a little and his voice lowers almost to a whisper. "Where is home? I've wondered where home is, and I realized, it's not Mars or someplace like that, it's Indianapolis when I was nine years old. I had a brother and a sister, a cat and a dog, and a mother and a father and uncles and aunts. And there's no way I can get there again."
Vonnegut finishes his meal, lifts himself from the table and shuffles toward the door. I thank him again for the interview and tell him I hope he has an agreeable afternoon. "I will," he says, turning back with a grin. "I'm going to sleep."