On a cold, cloudy night, the lines threaded all the way around the Ohio State campus. News that Kurt Vonnegut was speaking at the Ohio Union prompted these “apathetic” heartland college students to start lining up in the early afternoon. About 2,000 got in to the Ohio Union. At least that many more were turned away. It was the biggest crowd for a speaker here since Michael Moore.
In an age dominated by hype and sex, neither Moore nor Vonnegut seems a likely candidate to rock a campus whose biggest news has been the men’s and women’s basketball teams’ joint assault on Big Ten championships.
But maybe there’s more going on here than Fox wants us to think.
Vonnegut takes an easy chair across from Prof. Manuel Luis Martinez, a poet and teacher of writing. He grabs Martinez and semi-whispers into his ear (and the mike) “What can I say here?”
Martinez urges candor.
“Well,” says Vonnegut, “I just want to say that George W. Bush is the syphilis president.”
The students seem to agree.
“The only difference between Bush and Hitler,” Vonnegut adds, “is that Hitler was elected.”
“You all know, of course, that the election was stolen. Right here.”
Off to a flying start, Vonnegut explains that this will be his “last speech for money.” He can’t remember the first one, but it was on a campus long, long ago, and this will be the end.
The students are hushed with the prospect of the final appearance of America’s greatest living novelist. Alongside Mark Twain and Ben Franklin, Will Rogers and Joseph Heller and a very short list of immortal satirists and storytellers, there stands Kurt Vonnegut, author of SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and SIRENS OF TITAN, CAT’S CRADLE and GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER, books these students are studying now, as did their parents, as will their children and grandchildren, with a deeply felt mixture of gratitude and awe.
Nobody tonight seems to think they were in for a detached, scholarly presentation from a disengaged academic genius coasting on his incomparable laurels
“I’m lucky enough to have known a great president, one who really cared about ALL the people, rich and poor. That was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was rich himself, and his class considered him a traitor.
“We have people in this country who are richer than whole countries,” he says. “They run everything.
“We have no Democratic Party. It’s financed by the same millionaires and billionaires as the Republicans.
“So we have no representatives in Washington. Working people have no leverage whatsoever.
“I’m trying to write a novel about the end of the world. But the world is really ending! It’s becoming more and more uninhabitable because of our addiction to oil.
“Bush used that line recently,” Vonnegut adds. “I should sue him for plagiarism.”
Things have gotten so bad, he says, “people are in revolt again life itself.”
Our economy has been making money, but “all the money that should have gone into research and development has gone into executive compensation. If people insist on living as if there’s no tomorrow, there really won’t be one.
“As the world is ending, I’m always glad to be entertained for a few moments. The best way to do that is with music. You should practice once a night.
“If you want really want to hurt your parents and don’t want to be gay, go into the arts,” he says.
Then he breaks into song, doing a passable, tender rendition of “Stardust Memories.”
By this time this packed hall has grown reverential. The sound system is appropriately tenuous. Straining to hear every word is both an effort and a meditation.
“To hell with the advances in computers,” he says after he finishes singing. “YOU are supposed to advance and become, not the computers. Find out what’s inside you. And don’t kill anybody.
“There are no factories any more. Where are the jobs supposed to come from? There’s nothing for people to do anymore. We need to ask the Seminoles: ‘what the hell did you do?’’ after the tribe’s traditional livelihood was taken away.
Answering questions written in by students, he explains the meaning of life. “We should be kind to each other. Be civil. And appreciate the good moments by saying ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’
“You’re awful cute” he says to someone in the front row. He grins and looks around. “If this isn’t nice, what is?
“You’re all perfectly safe, by the way. I took off my shoes at the airport. The terrorists hate the smell of feet.
“We are here on Earth to fart around,” he explains, and then embarks on a soliloquy about the joys of going to the store to buy an envelope. One talks to the people there, comments on the “silly-looking dog,” finds all sorts of adventures along the way.
As for being a midwesterner, he recalls his roots in nearby Indianapolis, a heartland town, the next one west of here. “I’m a fresh water person. When I swim in the ocean, I feel like I’m swimming in chicken soup. Who wants to swim in flavored water?”
A key to great writing, he adds, is to “never use semi-colons. What are they good for? What are you supposed to do with them? You’re reading along, and then suddenly, there it is. What does it mean? All semi-colons do is suggest you’ve been to college.”
Make sure, he adds, “that your reader is having a good time. Get to the who, when, where, what right away, so the reader knows what is going on.”
As for making money, “war is a very profitable thing for a few people. Jesus used to be so merciful and loving of the poor. But now he’s a Republican.
“Our economy today is not capitalism. It’s casino-ism. That’s all the stock market is about. Gambling.
“Live one day at a time. Say ‘if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is!’
“You meet saints every where. They can be anywhere. They are people behaving decently in an indecent society.
“I’m going to sue the cigarette companies because they haven’t killed me,” he says. His son lived out his dream to be a pilot and has spent his career flying for Continental. Now they’ve “screwed up his pension.”
The greatest peace, Vonnegut wraps up, “comes from the knowledge that I have enough. Joe Heller told me that.
“I began writing because I found myself possessed. I looked at what I wrote and I said ‘How the hell did I do that?’
“We may all be possessed. I hope so.”
He accepts the students’ standing ovation with characteristic dignity and grace. Not a few tears flow from young people with the wisdom to appreciate what they are seeing. “If this isn’t nice, we don’t know what is.”
Not long ago we spoke on the phone. I asked Kurt how he was. “Too fucking old,” he replied.
Maybe so. But the mind and soul are still there, powerful and penetrating as ever. Just as they’ll ever be in his books and stories and the precious records of his wonderful talks.
Thankfully, Kurt Vonnegut is still possessed by the genius of seeing and describing the world as only Kurt Vonnegut can.
He is still sharp and clear, full of love and life and light. May he be with us yet for a long long time to come.
Harvey Wasserman read CAT’S CRADLE, SIRENS OF TITAN and SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE in college, sought Boku-Maru, and has never been the same.
Copyright 2006 Free Press