The gentleman from Indiana

Dateline: Thu 14 Sep 2006

Every once in a while, it's good to take a break from politics, religion, and the other fleas of life and just have fun. Well, we did that with Sex Sells, but how about a deeper and more sterling version of fun? As well as a reminder of our rich cultural heritage in this state when it comes to our man of letters.

Indy's own Kurt Vonnegut is featured prominently in "Stopsmiling, The Magazine for Lowlifes," published in Chicago five times a year. I bought my copy at my favorite Northside News at 5408 N. College, home of Cuban sandwiches, American Spirit cigarettes and the best selection of periodicals in Indiana. The hook for this issue (which I had never before read) is "an ode to the Midwest." Vonnegut's story, featured on the cover, is under the heading "The Melancholia of Everything Completed." (actually a line from Nietzche).

Vonnegut is now 83 years of age and the last time he made "the news" was when he almost toasted himself to death in a fire in his Manhattan apartment in 2000, watching Sunday afternoon football. That was a downer, but it served to remind his fans that he is alive and mostly well, Pell Malls aside. He has, however, supposedly stopped writing -- he has 14 published novels. The New York Times, he noted, has not seen fit to publish recent op-ed and essays he's sent. Pooh on them. No matter; Vonnegut is making art and noise at his Long Island home these days.

I can't begin to reprint all he said in "Stopsmiling," so I'll concentrate on the high points of the Q&A -- his observations about his life in the heartland, art, life, and the world. Here's how it all begins:

"Stop Smiling: Tell me about the American Midwest you remember from childhood and the one you came to after WWII.

"Kurt Vonnegut: I was born in Indianapolis, but I'm a Chicagoan who lives in New York. I went to the University of Chicago. I worked for the Chicago's City News Bureau as a street reporter and my first child, Mark, was born there.

"SS: So you think the Midwest is a good place to grow up?

"KV: If George W. Bush got mad enough at me and exiled me back to Indianapolis, I could make a decent life there. I could hack it in Indianapolis."

Vonnegut talks about his pioneering German relatives who chose to settle in the Midwest rather than New York. One draw was the sheer size of the heartland. Being right in the thick of "arable land" that "stretched out hundreds of miles in all directions" held huge appeal. But the real lure to the New World was the Constitution, he said. His people, and others in the same class, weren't necessarily being oppressed, but they liked the idea of freedom.

"KV: The country was welcoming everybody. They were educated German gentiles and Jews as well. They were savvy in businesss and learned English and were in a good shape to establish themselves, which they did....All the businesses in Indianapolis were largely taken over by Germans -- again German Jews and gentiles alike."

After the war -- he was in the Army, a rifleman and was a prisoner of war in Dresden -- he went to Chicago, married and his wife got pregnant right away. He took a job at the Chicago News Bureau where, he said, he learned the principles he applies to fiction: who, what, when, where and why.

"Fiction is a game for two," he says, speaking of writers who are too obscure to attract readers. "You have to make it possible for a reader to play along."

Vonnegut also credits his ability to relate to readers to his days as an editor of the Shortridge Daily Echo at Shortridge High School in Indy.

"I went to an overachiever's high school in Indianapolis, which no longer exists...since 1906, it had a daily paper...and I learned to write. It was beneficial, really, because it made me aware immediately of the response of readers. You publish something people don't like and you hear about it right away."

On art, which was discouraged as a career choice in his science-oriented home: .."Practice an art, no matter how badly or how well you do it. It will make your soul grow. That's why you do it. You don't do it to become famous or rich. You do it to make your soul grow....

"This would include singing in the shower, dancing to the radio by yourself, drawing a picture of your roommate or writing a poem or whatever..."

"Have the experience of becoming. It is so sad so many public school systems are eliminating the arts because it's no way to make a living. What's important is to have the experience of becoming..."

Vonnegut speaks of growing up in a home where exposure to the arts was taken for granted. While he was expected to go into business of some sort -- his father was an architect, his brother a scientist -- he also was accustomed to having the director of the symphony over for lunch at home, for instance.

On politics, he is predictably grim: "What's going on now, we have wrecked the planet as a life support system, so it will slowly die. We are in a state of denial now...There is only one party, which is People With Money. Some of them say they're Democrats and they fight with Republicans. What everybody is saying now is we can't fix it."

Bush, Cheney and other millionaires who ignore the planet, he says, are psychopaths. "There is a wonderful medical book about them. It's called 'The Mask of Sanity' by Dr. Hervey M. Cleckley. It's about people who were born without consciences. They don't care what happens next."

(Note to readers: The Mask of Sanity is out of print but you can get a copy for $90 or so. Or you can download it. A favorite copy messenger at the Star, Ian Osborne, introduced it to me a year or so ago).

Finally, SS asks: "What gets you up in the morning?

"KV: Sunlight. The news is perfectly terrible, so we all just entertain each other."

If you want more, lo and behold, Vonnegut has a blog on MySpace. (Why am I not surprised? If the NYT won't publish him, by God, he'll blog).

MySpace is nothing short of delightful -- "a fire at one end and a fool at the other," he says in his intro.

Please check it out ...become one of Kurt's friends. He has 526 right now.

http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=73826994

Contact me: ruth@ruthholladay.com

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