I walked into work today, completely unaware of what had happened. Instead of spending the morning listening to the radio like I normally do, I was working on my projects for school and listening to music. When I got to library I was given the task of touring the shelves and pulling off titles for our current display on Shakespeare (his birthday is sometime this month). So when I saw a new display tucked away to the side of the checkout desk I had no idea what happened. Seeing familiar titles like Cat's Cradle and Bagumbo Snuffbox, I smiled. I haven't really been happy with the types of displays we've had lately, so I've made some suggestions for some. A display of Vonnegut being one them, I thought someone had finally taken my suggestion to heart.
But then I looked over and saw the sign next to the books. There was a black and white photo of Vonnegut's familiar whizened face. Below the photo it said, in plain black letters, "Kurt Vonnegut, jr. 1922-2007".
I dropped the Shakespeare books on the floor. I looked down at the books I dropped, then up at the display, then back down at the books, and then up again. I couldn't believe my eyes in either case. I walked up to the information desk, just leaving the Shakespeare books scattered on the floor.
"What happened?" I asked in a tone that was probably a little stronger than it should have been.
The librarians working the desk just looked at me, not knowing what I was talking about.
"The Vonnegut display. Is he really..."
I couldn't bring myself to say the word dead.
"He died," one of them said. "I heard it on the radio this morning. Something to do with injuries related to a fall he had a few weeks ago."
I nodded, then went back and picked up the books I had dropped on the floor. I spent the rest of day reading snippets out of his books and looking up odd quotes from him online, each one making me smile and tear up a little at the same time. Every once in awhile I'd see a patron look at the Vonnegut display, but the only person to express anything to me was a woman who had him confused with Ray Bradbury.
So it goes.
In comparison to a lot of other people, I came to Vonnegut late in life. Not until after college. Not that I hadn't heard of him or had other people suggest him to me. Tracy---this crazy-mad art girl I had a big crush on in high school----was always telling me to read him my Junior and Senior year in high school. My friend Rusty at JMU never understood how I could enjoy satirical nuts like James Morrow and not worship Vonnegut. But at that point in my life I still had it in my head that I couldn't read anything by choice that was shelved outside the sci fi section.
When I finally did get to him after college, he blew my mind. First with Cat's Cradle, then with Slaughterhouse Five, Breakfast of Champions and beyond. It was still sci-fi, but it was also something else. Something beyond. Along with Philip K. Dick and one or two others writers, Vonnegut became my bridge off the island of sci fi to the world of experimental lit. He's one of those rare writers who danced between popular, genre, experimental and mainstream fiction, each claiming him but not ever really belonging to any of them.
When I started writing I wanted to be Vonnegut. My first published piece of fiction was an introduction to an imaginary novel that was heavily inspired by Vonnegut's intro to Slaughterhouse Five. It amazed me that he was able to get away with essentially telling his whole story in the intro. Later, Breakfast of Champions cracked my head open to meta-fiction and to mixing pieces of your own life into your work. I'm still dealing with all of that garbage. Vonnegut made it all look so easy, and the more I write the more I realize how nearly impossible it is to do that.
Vonnegut made us laugh. He made us cry. And, most importantly, he made us stop and think. I can't imagine an author trying to do anything more important.
Lots of other great tributes out there to him. My favorites thus far are at And I Am Not Lying For Real, Mumpsimus and the online chat Michael Dirda did via The Washington Post.