I Used To Pretend Kurt Vonnegut Was My Grandfather
Ode To A Literary Hero On His Birthday
Today would have been Kurt Vonnegut’s 101st birthday. It’s hard to overstate how important Vonnegut, his writing and many of his views on humanity are to me. So, I thought I’d share this essay I wrote for Medium in 2021.
My grandfather was a chain-smoking World War II vet with a wicked sense of humor.
After the war, he got married to his first wife and they had three kids. He worked as a publicist for a big corporation, but quit to become a full-time writer instead. When that didn’t work out right away, he opened a car dealership that went bust after a year.
Sadly, his sister and her husband both died, so my grandfather and his wife took in three of their children. Now they had six kids to take care of with the money he earned publishing short stories and sci-fi novels. He eventually had to admit the full-time author thing wasn’t really working out, so he took a teaching job in Iowa.
That kept some cash coming in while he continued writing. Then, a couple years later, he got a fellowship that let him return to the German city of Dresden city where he survived a terrible bombing during the war. He finally wrote a book about that experience and became a world-famous author.
Crazy, right? I only know all of this because he was an amazing storyteller. One minute he’d be talking about the war, and the next thing you know he’d be going on about time travel. He simplified the most complicated concepts and human emotions, making them feel understandable.
He also told a lot of stories about a weird sci-fi author named Kilgore Trout…
It Started With ‘Deadeye Dick’
Okay, fine. That’s obviously Kurt Vonnegut’s story, and he clearly wasn’t my grandfather. In fact, we aren’t related at all and we never met (much to my sadness). But for a long time that’s how I thought of him.
I never knew either of my real grandfathers either, so the concept always felt foreign to me. Sure, I saw other kids interacting with their grandparents—and there were plenty of examples from TV and movies—so I had templates to work from, just no actual older men to fill the role.
Then, in my teens, a friend handed me Deadeye Dick. I wasn’t much of a recreational reader back then, but I tore through that book. Within a year, I read everything he’d written up to that point (and stuck with him up until his death in 2007, in addition to post-humous releases). Novels, short stories, essays, plays—if the name Kurt Vonnegut was on the spine, I was all in.
I still am.
It’s no exaggeration that discovering Vonnegut changed my life. I became an avid reader thanks to him. And all of that reading later led to my own little publishing career, so I guess you could say I stayed in the “family” business.
(To be clear: I’m in no way comparing my writing to Vonnegut’s — that would be absurd. He’s a genius, I am not. I also mean no offense to anybody who’s actually related to him.)
But none of that explains how I came to think of him as a surrogate grandfather.
Mustard Gas and Roses
The more I read (and re-read) his books, the deeper my personal relationship to his writing and philosophy became. Strangely, I was always most drawn to the lines that sounded grandfatherly.
Like this one from Slaughterhouse-5: “I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone. I get drunk, and I drive my wife away with a breath like mustard gas and roses. And then, speaking gravely and elegantly into the telephone, I ask the telephone operators to connect me with this friend or that one, from whom I have not heard in years.”
Or this one, from Man Without a Country? “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
Only grandfathers talk about “telephone operators” and “farting around,” right? Mustard gas? I’m clearly no expert, but that seemed to hit every grandfather trope I’d come across. It was wise, insightful, a little uncomfortable, and slightly out of touch with the modern world.
Make Your Soul Grow
On the flip side, he was exactly the kind of champion a budding musician and writer like me needed in my corner. I already had my parents, counselors and various other adults advising me to study something practical in college.
So, if I was going to make up a fictional grandfather, he might as well be really cool, loving and supportive. Right?
“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” (Man Without a Country)
“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater)
“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.” (Sirens of Titan)
I know most of us don’t choose our grandfathers, but if we did—I couldn’t imagine a better choice than Kurt Vonnegut.
So, I’m sticking with him.
So it goes.