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Fri, Nov. 14th, 2008, 11:14 pm
December 31, Sri Lanka


Mon, Nov. 10th, 2008, 04:51 am
Kurt Vonnegut

I purposefully didn't bring any reading material on this trip, both because I was already near the free baggage allotment level when leaving Yangon, and because I expected to be able to pick up some choice titles--ideally focusing on Middle East politics. But books in Amman were very expensive and the famed used place in Jerusalem really didn't have a lot available. So, I've gone on a bit of a fiction jaunt.

In particular, I found copies of Joseph Heller's "Closing Time" and Kurt Vonnegut's "Timequake". The Heller book is the sequel to "Catch-22", released a third of a century after its predecessor and few years before Heller's death. As "Catch-22" is my novel, the one that's influenced me the most greatly, I had been quasi-intentionally avoiding reading it, worried that it might be a colossal bummer, thus somewhat tarnishing "the book that changed my life." (Quick aside--in 1986, I worked as a dishwasher in a fancy Ann Arbor restaurant called "The Earle". During my term of employment there, Heller came to Ann Arbor for a reading. Being that I was--and still am--a complete moron, I didn't take advantage of my one chance to meet the guy, despite it being a night off for me. However, following the reading, Heller and his entourage dined at The Earle. Head saute chef John "Magic Man" Solomon--a gnarly, stinky punk rock dude with a huge orange mohawk, and still one of my true heroes and role models--got wind of the author's presence, and he knew well what the book meant to me. Stumbling into the dining room, no doubt causing a sudden chain reaction upper-crust diners glancing anxiously as their food, the Magic Man lumbered to the table, and barked--"Hey! My friend Robert says Catch-22 changed his life; will you write him an autograph or something?" Either out of politeness or fear, he complied, and composed the following on a three inch by seven inch sheet of card stock: "Robert--Thank you for the compliment. Catch-22 changed my life as well. Joseph Heller")

"Closing Time" was neither a wretched downer, nor a revelation. Roughly halfway through the book, I found myself vaguely irritated by it. Coming into the home stretch, I'd found that I enjoyed much of the latter half of the book. By the ending--which didn't work for me in the slightest--I was lukewarm on it. But on the whole, I enjoyed revisiting the style and through the many references to the original, I had the chance to revisit some of those characters and my memories attached to them.

The Vonnegut novel--his last--was a well chosen mate for Heller's. They were authors from the same generation--close friends, even--with a similarly irreverent take on the world. Both, in fact, appear in the other's novel and they formed a well-balanced tandem. "Timequake" revolves around the idea of a glitch in time in which the universe "suffered a crisis in confidence" and "could not decide whether to continue expanding or not". The compromise was to slip suddenly ten years back into the past, forcing all of earth's inhabitants to relive every last thought, action, and event of the ten years that they had just completed. The people were aware of their plight, but were unable to make any changes; they had been stripped of all free will. The story's plot was only a part of the work, though, as Vonnegut interspersed autobiographical tales and random observations amidst the story line.

It was a shorter, punchier read than "Closing Time", and I enjoyed it more. But I write of this because of one simple passage that stood out. Vonnegut was a good lefty and an active non-religionist, which is perhaps a large part of why I always appreciated him. Midway through the novel, he reflects on the last remaining occasionally quoted words of Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the American Socialist Party until his death in 1926. Debs has carried a certain significance in my family, as he was a relatively pure soul, and thus something of a hero in my world, as I am the third generation is a succession of "small 's' socialists". Shortly after my grandfather's 1977 death, the family honored his request by stopping through Terre Haute, Indiana to lay roses on Debs' grave.

Vonnegut's brief foray into the Debs legacy is as follows. And it needs no further commentary, except to say that I fully agree.

“I still quote Eugene Debs (1855 – 1926), late of Terre Haute, Indiana, five times the Socialist Party’s candidate for President, in every speech:

‘While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.’

In recent years, I’ve found it prudent to say before quoting Debs that he is to be taken seriously. Otherwise many in the audience will start to laugh. They are being nice, not mean, knowing that I like to be funny. But it is also a sign of these times that such a moving echo of the Sermon on the Mount can be perceived as outdated, wholly discredited as horsecrap.

Which it is not.”

--Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake, P. 142 – 143