Kurt Vonnegut died this week at the age of 84. I've never done an obituary on this blog and doubt I'd be any good, so I'll just be entirely selfish and (briefly) talk about what it means to me.
Although none of his books appear on my Top Five list, Kurt Vonnegut is without a doubt one of my favorite authors, easily in the top three. The consistent strength of his writing and his enormous humanism both endear him to me greatly. He wrote the kind of book that you could read in a weekend and that would change your life for years to come.
I first encountered Vonnegut in high school, more or less randomly picking up Slaughterhouse-Five. It was good, but after reading Cat's Cradle I was hooked. I voraciously devoured everything he wrote, including his early science fiction short stories and recent autobiographical musings. Not everything he wrote was a classic, but everything was good and provoking.
It's impossible to read Vonnegut without the word "pessimism" creeping in. He can be bleak at times, and his stories very rarely have the sort of happy ending we tend to expect from our fiction. And yet, while Vonnegut denies us the easy uplift of transcendent gestures, there is a quiet comfort to be found in the way his characters muddle through their lives. In Jailbird, he repeats one fan's summary of his work's underlying message: "Love may fail but courtesy will prevail."
My personal favorite Vonnegut books are (in order) Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Timequake. Pat's favorite is (was?) Mother Night. Slaughterhouse-Five is also excellent, though I feel it has reached its iconic stature due to the way it spoke to the previous generation's concerns about war more than its (still good) literary merit.
I can't decide whether Vonnegut's death is made easier or harder by his lifelong commitment to atheism. He took such a wry, low-key approach to death that I imagine he would be a little embarrassed at the attention. After all, his books are still here, and the clump of cells that for years we called "Kurt" is still there. Still, I want to echo the words he said about Isaac Asimov, another lifelong atheist, and say, "Kurt is up in Heaven now."