John Krull: Kurt Vonnegut’s masterwork at 50

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INDIANAPOLIS — Kurt Vonnegut didn’t get much wrong.

But he did make a mistake about one big thing.

He thought he would be forgotten and his masterwork “Slaughterhouse-Five” would be relegated to the remainder bins and trash heaps of lost books.

Kurt and I were friends in his last years. Near the end of his life, we met for lunch. Somehow, the conversation turned to his legacy.

He was convinced no one would remember him. I tried to tell him otherwise but didn’t make much headway.

“No,” he said. “You’re lucky if you get to have some influence in the time in which you live. That’s all you can expect, and you’re lucky if you get that much.”

Not even “Slaughterhouse-Five” would keep his name alive.

It’s hard for someone who didn’t know Kurt to believe he would lack confidence. He was one of the great Hoosier success stories, a kid from Indianapolis who hit the big time.

For the last four decades of his life, he was a fixture on the bestseller lists and enjoyed a kind of celebrity rare for modern writers. He did commercials, made cameos in movies and drew huge crowds at lectures — for which he charged $25,000 an appearance.

But that success was a long time coming.

Kurt was 46 and had been writing for 20 years before he became famous. He had tried many things — doing public relations work, selling cars — to pay the bills while he struggled to make his writing career self-sustaining. Because his books were so different — innovative mixtures of science fiction, satire and studies of ideas — both audiences and critics often didn’t know what to make of them.

But, when his breakthrough came, it was breathtaking.

That was “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which was first published 50 years ago this week, on March 31, 1969.

It came out as the Vietnam War continued to stumble down its long and tragic path. One of many anti-war novels printed during that era, Kurt’s book stood out because of its tone.

Less a screed and more a lament, “Slaughterhouse-Five” fictionalizes Kurt’s experience as a German prisoner of war during the waning days of World War II. He was held captive in Dresden, Germany, when the Allies bombed the picturesque old European city and reduced it to smoke and rubble.

Kurt and his fellow prisoners were forced to retrieve and bury corpses by the hundred from the bombed-out buildings.

That experience stayed with Kurt to the end of his days.

His son Mark — a doctor — told me Kurt suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and that writing was the thing that saved Kurt’s life. Kurt’s best friend, the writer Sidney Offit, said “Slaughterhouse-Five” came from Kurt’s soul.

The book percolated for years in Kurt’s imagination.

He first wrote about the horrors he saw and experienced in a letter to his family in 1945. He revisited it some time after that in a short piece that almost pulsed with rage and pain.

It was almost as if, as a writer, he was circling around his material, waiting for the anger and the anguish he felt to cool enough for him to handle them.

When he did deal with his time in war, the result was a work of surpassing beauty and tragic absurdity. Regret, rueful acceptance of humanity’s capacity for cruelty and malice and hard-earned and well-seasoned kindness seep from its pages.

It is one of the great books of its day.

And any other day, for that matter.

More than 100,000 copies of “Slaughterhouse-Five” are sold every year, even as it enters its sixth decade in print. It is part of the canon because it deserves to be.

That Kurt was mistaken about his masterpiece’s lasting appeal just proves that he was one of us.

That he was human and just as confused as the next person.

Kurt Vonnegut has been gone for nearly a dozen years now. He died in April of 2007.

But the book that propelled him to fame lives on, finding new readers everywhere and every time the sun rises or sets.

So it goes.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].