Like his friend Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut was a hero to baby boomers — though he was raised in an earlier time. The president he mourned was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, not John F. Kennedy. His war was World War II, not Vietnam.
Nearly 40 when the 1960s began, Vonnegut was less a peer of the young rebels who loved such novels as “Cat’s Cradle” and “Slaughterhouse-Five,” than a wise, eccentric and cranky uncle, scorning the world’s madness but rarely failing to get some laughs or challenge some minds.
Vonnegut, who died Wednesday at 84, didn’t need Vietnam to figure out that the system didn’t work, that the 1950s were a lie and that you shouldn’t believe what grown-ups tell you. His absurdist humor, the survival tactic of a former prisoner of war whose mother had committed suicide, proved as useful and as up-to-date to the postwar generation as a Bob Dylan song.
“Growing up when I did, at a time of widespread alienation and disgust, Vonnegut’s irreverence was very appealing, and certainly influenced my own views of contemporary life,” said novelist Ken Kalfus, 53, a National Book Award finalist last year for “A Disorder Peculiar to the Country,” a satire of marriage, Sept. 11 and the Iraq war. “His work opened up new space to think about politics and society and also to think about what literature was good for.”
Norman Mailer, another World War II veteran who found an audience with younger readers, noted that Vonnegut was “an icon to several generations of young Americans who rushed to read everything he published.”
Novelist Rick Moody, not even born when Vonnegut started publishing, recalled reading his books “several times” and wondered if “I could have gotten through my middle teens without him.”
“I liked him for world-weary gentleness, warmth, and comedy. And he was pretty darned imaginative, too, which is never a fault in my world,” said the 45-year-old Moody, best known for “The Ice Storm,” a satire set in the 1970s.
“He was the kind of writer who made people — young people, especially — want to write,” added Jonathan Safran Foer, the 30-year-old author of “Everything is Illuminated.” “He wrote the kinds of books you pass around.”
He made the world funnier, more excitingFor countless teenagers, reading Vonnegut was as much an entry into adult life as your first beer. The world became funnier, more dangerous, more exciting. If you were looking to send up authority, question life’s meaning or face the worst and keep your sense of humor, Vonnegut was your teacher.
Novelist Jess Walter, also a National Book Award finalist last fall, recalled working on his nominated book “The Zero,” a Sept. 11 story “with satire about our culture.” Walter would joke that he wore a wristband that read, “WWVD — What Would Vonnegut Do.”
“I became a writer because of him,” said Walter, 41. “It was his compassion, humanism and great humor in the face of 20th century horrors that made me realize all that a writer could do. He was deceptively simple and because readers discovered him when they were young, they sometimes made the mistake of dismissing him later, but what he was doing was so complex, so difficult.”
Kalfus, too, found that Vonnegut was an author who stayed with you long after you thought you had outgrown him. You don’t have to be young to appreciate that “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be” or agree that “laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion.”
Some learned though his books, others from the man. John Irving studied at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s, when Vonnegut was a faculty member then known, and often dismissed, as a science fiction writer.
Irving, who went on to write “The World According to Garp” and “The Cider House Rules,” remembered Vonnegut as a self-effacing presence who “didn’t have an agenda about what ‘the novel’ should be.” Vonnegut also appreciated that you didn’t have to be in the classroom to get your work done.
“I had a young child at the time and when he heard about that he said, ‘You mean you have to work in writing whenever you can?”’ Irving explained. “He then told me, ‘You’re certainly giving me enough pages every week, so why not forget about the class part and stay home and take care of your kid?”’