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A Look Back at the Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut


…United Nation's building in New York. I approached him with my tape recorder and my microphone and was promptly struck dumb with awe. My best friend had loaned me a copy of "The Sirens of Titan" back in high school, and we reveled in all of his novels as they came out or as we discovered them in second-hand bookstores.

In some ways, I still like "The Sirens of Titan" the best. It's the one that made it easiest to argue that Vonnegut wrote science fiction, and of course that validated the field and my interested in it, but he sure didn't play the games of those steeped in the genre, and that was okay, too.

When "Slaughterhouse-Five" came out, I wrote about in the very obscure publication The Science Fiction Review. I gave it a five-star rave, as if my opinion made much difference. For what it's worth, it seemed to me that his best work ended with that novel and that something was lost after he lost his long struggle to write about the indescribable, the bombing and the subsequent firestorm he survived as a prisoner of war in Dresden.

But as amazing and as important as his earlier books are, there was a great deal more to Kurt Vonnegut's life. That day on the sidewalk outside the U.S. mission to the U.N., and inept young reporters struggled to find questions for the great man.

I wished I'd asked him the difference between the war he fought in Europe and the conflict in Vietnam. I wished I'd asked him to compare his experiences as a POW with the men being held in the Hanoi Hilton. I wished I'd asked him why he felt compelled to use a celebrity he despised to speak out against a war he despised even more.

If memory serves, what I did ask him was what he was doing. Committing suicide by cigarette, he replied, and then he kindly went on to explain why he was there that day and allow me to escape with the soundbite I needed.

I have to think that he'd be amused that, in the end, it wasn't the cigarettes or the alcohol or the depression he battled that killed him, and while I stopped reading his work some time ago - my loss - I never stopped listening. And I will revisit "The Sirens of Titan" when I get home this weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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