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Commentary Last Updated: Apr 16th, 2007 - 00:49:13

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut
By Jerry Mazza
Online Journal Associate Editor

Apr 16, 2007, 00:24

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Last Wednesday, Kurt Vonnegut, author of God bless You, Mr. Rosewater, 19 other novels, two books of essays, a wide assortment of film, stage and TV scripts, passed from this world, hopefully to a kinder gentler place. His death came as a result of a head injury sustained in a fall in his home in New York, a brownstone on East 48th. I often contemplated it in the 1980s and early 90s from my office across the street at Grey Advertising, where I worked as a writer.

I discovered Vonnegut�s writing before that, in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam madness, when I had already dodged the war twice. That year Vonnegut published his seventh novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, based on his experiences in WW II. As a 23-year old advance scout with the U.S. 106th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge, he was separated from his battalion and wandered alone behind enemy lines for several days. He was captured on December 14, 1944, and imprisoned by the Germans.

Because they hid in an underground meat locker, Vonnegut was just one of seven American POW�s to survive the February 13, 1945, Allies� firebombing that killed 130,000 people in Dresden, a city famous for its chocolates and Meissen porcelain. He described the attack as �utter destruction� and �carnage unfathomable.� It destroyed most of the city. The Nazis had the young Vonnegut gathering bodies for mass burial. In later years he said, �There were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in guys with flamethrowers. All these civilians� remains were burned to ashes.� This experience was at the heart of Slaughterhouse-Five and helped make that novel one of the 100 best of the century on Time Magazine and Modern Library lists.

Yet Vonnegut pronounced this amazing book a failure �because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.� His irony aside, he was wrong on both counts. One, the book is a masterpiece of protest against the brutality of war. And second, it never fails to illuminate the implications of apocalypse and our need to stop it, certainly the one we face today.

After reading SF, I traveled back and forward in the Vonnegut canon like his hero Billy Pilgrim travels in time. I was greatly moved by the hero of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, the scion of an extremely wealthy family, who goes off to war, only to return and give away the Rosewater Foundation money to the poor. Eliot Rosewater, philanthropist, poet, volunteer fireman, Harvard graduate, and boozer went ahead and helped any and all that came to him for help, dodging a family lawyer trying to declare him insane. Rosewater was crazy, like a fox.

After the war, Vonnegut earned his master�s degree in anthropology while working as a police reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago. After his �send-up thesis� was rejected, he submitted his novel Cat�s Cradle, which was accepted and published, became a bestseller and got him a job at The Writer�s Workshop at the University of Iowa. Two decades later, I won a stipend to the Workshop for a thesis that was a book of poems. It wasn�t published and the stipend wasn�t enough to live on; so much for comparisons.

Nevertheless, I turned at some point to writing in public relations. So it gave me great hope when I read that Vonnegut too had scribbled in public relations for General Electric. And his droll descriptions of corporate life and discomfort mirrored my own.

The shades of his brownstone always seemed drawn. But every now and then I and my art director partner were lucky enough to see him emerge like some bear from his cave, only in a blue suit, white shirt, tie, a pile of curly hair on his head, a cigarette (Pall Mall) dangling from his mouth or held loosely in his hand. We�d watch him venture off into the world, probably to his publisher, Random House, which had offices then on Third Ave and East 50th Street.

Any number of times, I�d exit Grey on Third Avenue and find myself walking behind him, as if fate had guided my steps to him. Any number of times we�d arrive at a traffic light and I�d step next to him, ready to speak one of the dozen short speeches of praise I�d rehearsed in my head. But somehow my tongue always stuck to the roof of my mouth. I was speechless, not a frequent occurrence with me.

I�d worked and shot with movie stars and celebrities and big-wig corporatos. I�d tap-danced in boardrooms from coast to coast. But in front of Vonnegut, all six feet four of him, looking like a retired New York Knicks center, I froze. The light changed, he took a puff, and walked on.

But my mind would still be running, �Hello, Mr. Vonnegut, my name is Jerry Mazza, I�m a copywriter up there at Grey, and I know you wrote copy too for GE, and I just want to tell you that you�re a great writer. I�ve read all of your books so far, and what you say about war, politics, poverty, it�s all true. And the way you write, it�s genius.� No, no, no, I thought. Don�t be a flatterer. Don�t just sail into praise. Just say hello. Let him say something. And so it went.

Meanwhile he would stride away into the crowd, and I�d practically walk into him another day. My lips would tighten again, thinking he�d be in the middle of one of those long beautiful curling sentences, composing some great paragraph. And here I, this guy out of nowhere, would break his train, and it�d be gone, derailed, off track. So once again, I laid back.

Occasionally, when I saw Vonnegut, he�s eyes were a bit twinkley and he looked a bit tipsy. I know he had a penchant for the sauce in real-life as well as in fiction (as I did back then), though I�m sure he could laser his way through a plot knot in no time. I remember on several other days stopping at a traffic light crossing on East 48th or 49th and Third Avenue and being a millimeter close to breaking the ice. But no, the jaws stuck, the grin widened, and I felt like a total idiot. Years later, another art director friend of mine told me he had said hello to Vonnegut and the maestro was perfectly accessible and talkative.

Well then, Mr. Vonnegut, for your Billy Pilgrim who comes �unstuck in time� and, as someone has written, feels he �has so little control over his own life that he cannot predict which part of it he will be living through from minute to minute . . .� for �So it goes� and how it became the apostrophe to all that happened in Vietnam�s chaos . . . for your irony, simplicity, and caring, let me at last say many thanks. And for your so-called retirement, in which you were a senior editor for In These Times Magazine until your death, let me say thanks again, especially for your contempt and criticism of President George W. Bush�s administration.

Two years earlier, in 2005 a number of those articles were compiled into the bestselling book, aptly titled A Man Without a Country, a title borrowed from Edward Everett Hale�s The Man Without a Country. The original, set in the early 1800s, told the story of a fiercely and truly loyal Army lieutenant, Philip Nolan, who, in utter frustration when tried for treason for his friendship with Aaron Burr, renounces his nation, shouting �Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!� His sentence is to grant his wish, and he spends the rest of his life in exile on US Navy warships, with no right to set foot on US soil, and no mention to be made to him about his country.

The use of that title reflects, I believe, Vonnegut�s own deep conflict with his unquestionable patriotism and his frustration with American politics and government, and the temptation to damn the country for the bad deeds of its leaders. As to Nolan�s tragic life, he finally hears about the events of America on his death bed, after coming to his country�s aid in battle on a Navy ship. Like Vonnegut, he is the old relentless warrior, battling fiercely with conscience and a true sense of patriotism and justice.

Writing in In These Times, Vonnegut attacked Bush and his administration for the Iraq War: �By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East?� Answering himself, he wrote �Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas in December.�

Vonnegut also wrote, �George W Bush has gathered around him upper-crust-C-students who know no history or geography.� Vonnegut took a dim view of the 2004 election as well and said: �no matter which one [Kerry or Bush] wins, we will have a Skull and Bones President at a time when entire vertebrate species, because of how we have poisoned the topsoil, the waters and the atmosphere, are becoming, hey presto, nothing but skull and bones.� For that, too, Mr. Vonnegut my and the world�s deepest thanks.

As reported in the Vonnegut profile in WikiPedia, when questioned about �terrorists� in 2002 by David Nason for The Australian, Vonnegut straightforwardly said, �I regard them as very brave people.� When further pressed Vonnegut added that �They [suicide bombers] are dying for their own self-respect. It�s a terrible thing to deprive someone of their self-respect. It�s [like] your culture is nothing, your race is nothing, you�re nothing . . . It is sweet and noble � sweet and honourable I guess it is � to die for what you believe in.� (This last statement is a reference to the line �Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori� [�it is sweet and appropriate to die for your country�] from Horace�s Odes, or possibly to Wilfred Owen�s ironic use of the line in his Dulce Et Decorum Est.)�

Unfortunately, �David Nason took offense at Vonnegut�s comments and characterized him as an old man who �doesn�t want to live any more . . . and because he can�t find anything worthwhile to keep him alive, he finds defending terrorists somehow amusing.�� Yet Vonnegut�s son, Mark Vonnegut, responded to the article by writing an editorial to the Boston Globe in which he explained the reasons behind his father�s so-called �provocative posturing.� He stated that �If these commentators can so badly misunderstand and underestimate an utterly unguarded English-speaking 83-year-old man with an extensive public record of saying exactly what he thinks, maybe we should worry about how well they understand an enemy they can�t figure out what to call.�

A 2006 interview with Rolling Stone magazine stated, � . . . it�s not surprising that he [Vonnegut] disdains everything about the Iraq War. The very notion that more than 2,500 U.S. soldiers have been killed in what he sees as an unnecessary conflict makes him groan. �Honestly, I wish Nixon were president,� Vonnegut laments. �Bush is so ignorant.��

And so Mr. Vonnegut, for your unflagging courage and truth-telling, my thanks; and thanks from a huge readership of world-wide citizens, who also, as I do, give you their unreserved love for your humanity. Would that I had the courage myself to once tell you this to your face. But wherever you wander, time-traveling to Tralfamadore and beyond, a perpetual universal pilgrim, hear this and know it�s from the heart, deep within its core which you are able so often to touch with great light, humor, grace and truth. So indeed it goes.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer living in New York. Reach him at

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