Humane and Reasonable?I was 11 or 12, drinking sugar, coming down from an Edgar Allan Poe binge, rummaging through the living-room bookshelves for something new. We had a fireplace with built-in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on either side, with the lower shelves hidden by cupboard doors. To the right of the fireplace, on the lowest open shelf, which was at about my shoulder height, I spotted a bright-orange paperback called Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.
I’d overheard my parents talking about it after dinner a few nights before, but I’d paid little attention and had no idea what to expect beyond the obvious: “Breakfast of Champions” was a motto for a popular breakfast cereal called Wheaties. I figured the book had something to do with sports or cereal. Well, I ate cereal. And I was a Little League pitcher for Eisner’s Grocery Store and hoped to one day be a guard in the NBA. So I pulled the thin book from the shelf and flipped through it, searching for clues.
It was a book mostly of words, with occasional and seemingly random simple line drawings. The one that caught my eye appeared to be a large eight-spoke asterisk, about an inch in diameter. I read the adjacent text and learned that, no, it was not a drawing of an asterisk but of an asshole.
This delighted me in some otherworldly way. I plowed through the book and moved on to the other Vonneguts on our shelves — Cat’s Cradle; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; Slaughterhouse-Five .?.?. I began to consider, for the first time, the idea of becoming a writer.
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As puberty arrived, a spurious libidinal correlation formed that remains to this day: A woman reading Vonnegut becomes more attractive.
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Three decades passed. Like Vonnegut, my father was born in the ’20s and served in World War II and considers himself a humanist. In early 2005, my father had approximately this to say about the aftermath of the 2004 presidential election: “My whole adult life, I thought that when it came time to die, I’d be leaving the world a slightly better place than it was when I arrived. Now I no longer feel that way.”
Shortly thereafter, one of my friends gave me a review copy of the soon-to-be-released A Man Without a Country, in which an exasperated Vonnegut wrote:
Many years ago I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.
But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America becoming humane and reasonable.