American counterculture and literary idol, Kurt Vonnegut, died yesterday at the age of 84. He was in Manhattan, and his death was the result of brain injuries from a fall several weeks ago.
Vonnegut came to New York in 1947, moving to Schenectady and taking a job with General Electric Company. Three years later he sold his first short story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” to Collier’s magazine and moved with his family to Cape Cod. His first novel “Player Piano” was published in 1952. He would go on to write thirteen more (even though after "Slaughterhouse-Five" was published and hit number one on the bestseller list, he went into depression and vowed he'd never write another). In that novel he drew a headstone with the epitaph: "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.''
This was obviously his most well-known work, and one of a series of novelistic treatments of war and society in the late 1960s and early 1970s that were adapted for the screen––some more successfully than others––that characterized not just the battlefied, but the mentality of society as a dangerous minefield. "Slaughterhouse-Five" was published in 1969, but wasn't ushered to the big screen until Rober Altman's MASH (1970) and Mike Nichols Catch-22 (1970) had already reached the theaters. All three films addressed the schizophrenic possibilities presented by civilized people engaging in the inhumane activity of war, although Vonnegut creatively took the comparison to the next level, by leaping his main character from one domestic- to wartime- to sci-fi- to postwar- milieu after another.
Fresh from such successful projects, Vonnegut would go on to create novels like "Breakfast of Champions", which combined then-expected absurdist narratives with author illustrations. In 1997 came his para-autobiographical novel, "Hocus Pocus," his most self-revealing point as a novelist who was never going to write an autobiography. It is another absurdist story that in this case involves a war veteran-turned-teacher to challenged wealthy children. When the teacher is accused of anti-Americanism, he is thrown out of his school and forced to work at a prison across a lake from the school. There is a buildup and climax we won't ruin.
Vonnegut also wrote plays, his first effort being “Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” which opened Off Broadway in 1970 to mixed reviews (here's the NY Times review of its revival in 1983). More recently he was an artist, participating in the project The Greatest Album Covers That Never Were, where he created an album cover for Phish called "Hook, Line and Sinker", which has been included in a traveling exhibit for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1997 he said in the prologue to “Timequake” that it would be his last novel, it was. Over his career, critics would say that Vonnegut could be heavy-handed or pedantic with his themes. Others would criticize him as trivializing timely issues with less-than-serious characterizations. That was the essence of Vonnegut: too serious for his detractors, too frivolous for his critics; only just right for his appreciators.