Charles Petzold

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007

April 12, 2007
New York, N.Y.

When Kurt Vonnegut was writing Slaughterhouse-Five in 1968 (it was published the following year), the United States was experiencing one of its most tumultous and violent years. The Vietnam War was at its peak: Over 16 thousand American soldiers were killed that year. The My Lai Massacre occurred in March. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Two months later, during a run for the Presidency as a peace candidate, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. In August during the Democratic National Convention, anti-war demonstrators and Chicago police clashed in a violent orgy of head-bashing later termed a "police riot." Richard Nixon was elected President.

That Slaughterhouse-Five was "about" all these things was obvious to those of us who read it at the time. Yet, it was also Vonnegut's most personal and autobiographical work: While serving in the army in Europe in World War II, Vonnegut was captured by the Germans and held in a prisoner of war camp near Dresden, Germany, where he witnessed the horrific 1945 firebombing of the city firsthand. (The slaughterhouse of the title refers to the underground meat locker in which the prisoners were held.) The connection to the use of napalm in the Vietnam War was an easy one for period readers to make.

In this best work (Cat's Cradle from 1963 is another), Vonnegut takes on the big issues — war, the end of the world, and the search for meaning in a meaningless universe. He is not afraid to portray ugliness and violence, yet his writing has a deep decency, humanity, and central kindness.

Ultimately, however, Vonnegut is a pessimistic writer. His novels are suffused with a gloomy resignation that people will continue to be brutal to one another. His elliptical, almost apologetic, style exposes a man who finds it painful to write while knowing the hopelessness of the task. The actual plot of Slaughterhouse-Five involves a man named Billy Pilgrim who has become "unstuck in time" and is able to visit his past and future, but which also implies that he has no free will.

Vonnegut knew more than anyone that novels are poor weapons against the curse of war, but to the end of his life he kept poking and provoking, hardly able to help himself, a tinge of humanitarian optimism in a desperate losing quest.