Remembering Kurt Vonnegut

A few years back I had the opportunity to write a freelance piece for Screen Printing magazine about Joe Petro, a Lexington , Kentucky , screen printer who did art for a disparate range of high profile characters including, but not limited to Jonathan Winters, Ralph Steadman, Hunter S. Thompson and former president Jimmy Carter.

 

In the original conception of the article I was intending to write about the screen printed artwork of Jonathan Winters. I interviewed Winters for near forty-five minutes (a rare and highly entertaining privilege, which I hope someday to turn into a couple articles for this Northland rag) and spent a great deal of energy shaping what amounted to a very weak piece about screen printing, because Mr. Winters did not do much screen printing. Joe Petro did the screen printing for him.

 

The rejection letter was very kind, leaving the door open for another pitch. I replied that Joe Petro himself would make a great story, since he was doing work for all these high profile people, etc. and with a little luck I might get access to some of them. Sure enough, the finished piece appeared in January 2004 under the title, “Serigraphy, Celebrities & Joe Petro.” It was a lot of fun.

 

One of the celebrities in my article happened to be Kurt Vonnegut, whose creative output was not limited to the written word. He was also an artist. I called him at his Manhattan home one Sunday afternoon in the fall of 2003. I asked if I was interrupting anything and he said he was sitting in his living room watching a football game. The ten minutes we talked flew past in a snap.

 

This past week, Kurt Vonnegut died. He was 84.

 

 

As the Boomer generation came of age, Kurt Vonnegut became one of its most important voices. When I was in college at O.U. (Buckeye State, not Oklahoma) it seemed that everyone was reading Vonnegut. Beginning with Cat’s Cradle, I read everything he wrote that I could put my hands on. His surly, incisive wit, creative cast of characters, and enthusiasm for smashing sacred cows – nearly all easy targets – had great appeal to young people who were living during an era of confusion and upheaval.

 

What attracted many readers to Vonnegut was his pointed social insights packaged in absurd, surreal stories. There is no mistaking Slaughterhouse Five for something that really happened. It is fiction.  But in fiction anything can happen, and in this book it does. The story line, however, is not what the book is about.  Yes, Billy Pilgrim is abducted by aliens; yes, he moves back and forth through time; yes, the story is whimsical yet dead serious.

 

Slaughterhouse Five is about the meaning of life, or the search for meaning after seeing the absurdly horrorific consequences of war. The real story Vonnegut tells is the firebombing of Dresden which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians who were incinerated in the conflagration caused by thousands of tons of U.S. bombs and incendiaries. Young Kurt Vonnegut was there and he was a survivor. In real life he had been a POW in Dresden . As the incineration took place, a deep truth seared his soul: war is a terrible thing and terrible are those who make it happen.

 

I find it interesting that the Serenity Prayer – help me accept the things that I cannot change and have the wisdom to know the things I can change – appears twice in this book, because the story line of Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater so parallels Franco Zefferelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon about the life of St. Francis. The hero, Elliot Rosewater, is a highly decorated war veteran who accidentally bayoneted a 14 year old civilian. He mentally comes unglued.  Or does he? To his rich and powerful family, he behaves like a kook because instead of carrying on the traditions of wealth and power and privilege, he actually chooses to help people. Like I say, it seems like a modern re-telling of the life of St. Francis.

 

Like Ernest Hemingway, Vonnegut was a journalist before becoming a novelist.  Like Mark Twain, he wrote somewhat comic stories with incisive venom. Like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, about a boy who wakes up a cockroach, Vonnegut’s tales yield their best fruit when you buy in to the absurd framework of the story.

 

 

Joe Petro met Kurt Vonnegut three decades ago when the latter came to Kentucky to speak at a local college. Petro worked with Vonnegut to produce the posters for that event. Vonnegut had been a consummate doodler. It came to pass that instead of having doodles all over the margins of his manuscripts, he would eventually make the doodles the featured focal point, whether on T-shirts or posters or framed works of art. Joe Petro helped make it possible. Joe also paved the way for my telephone meeting with Mr. Vonnegut.

 

For my interview I prepared a series of questions. He was expecting my call. When I spoke with him that October afternoon I began by mentioning that he and Herman Hesse had been the two most influential writers for me when I was in schoool, a light bit of flattery, adding that I had read nearly everything he wrote. His response caught me completely off guard.

“You must be lonely,” he replied.  He wasn’t too flattered by the flattery.

“Why is that?” 

“Because all of Hesse ’s characters were lonely.”

It completely threw me off. I wanted to ask my next question, but had an inward storm taking place. Part of me wanted to defend myself, and say “That was 30 years ago,” and part of me attempted to assess how much truth was in his words (more than I wanted to admit, actually), and part of me had to get back on track and re-connect with the man on the other end of this telephone.

 

Fortunately he was amenable and he began telling me about his friendship with Joe Petro, how he and Joe took some of his art and turned it into prints. It must have gone well because, “Joe said, ‘Why don’t we keep going’ and so we did.”

 

Vonnegut went on to say, “I’ve been a painter, a farter around. My father was a painter. So was my grandfather.  They were both architects, but also painted. So Joe and I kept going, and here we are.” 

 

Of the screen printing process, he added, “What a crazy way to make a picture in the age of the computer. In a way it’s very physical. It’s dance. He moves around and there’s all kinds of stuff for his hands to do… a lot of movement.” One could tell by the intonations that he was impressed with the artist.

 

I asked how they work together.  “My job is to be satisfied with his reproductions,” Vonnegut said. “What he does is to reproduce exactly what I have done. Sometimes he will suggest a different color background, choose the paper.”

 

Vonnegut asked me about myself and what I was doing. He said, “I like to hear about people who read books.” 

 

Hearing that I was from Northern Minnesota, he noted, “The most provincial people in the world are New York City people. {note: Vonnegut is from Indianapolis originally.} They don’t know anything about where you are and don’t care. The most terrible crime in sports was to take the Dodgers.”

 

Of the article I was working on he said, “Joe Petro is a worthy story.”

 

Regarding his initial meeting with Petro half a lifetime ago he said, “A funny thing happened on the way to the lecture.”

 

Near the end of my brief time with him he asked for a little more myself and my Kentucky roots came up. I mentioned being a descendant of Daniel Boone. He noted, “I was a prisoner of war (in Dresden) with a guy named Boone who was from Kentucky .” No doubt kin in some fashion.

 

After a short time together, it became apparent that he was being courteous to me for the sake of a friendship with his printmaker.

 

As I write these lines, I am aware that Joe himself is probably at near Kurt’s side in New York attending the funeral of his lifelong friend. God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut.

                                                                                                                                     ~ April 15, 2007

 

# # # #

 

Visit www.vonnegut.com for a Joe Petro tribute to this significant German American writer.

 

   




?>