Kurt Vonnegut Remembered, Jun 07 | Novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s Phantom Visit to the University of Iowa


I remember that I felt odd about having a copy of Cat’s Cradle with me. I don’t know why. After all, bringing an author’s book to a reading by that author is a fairly natural thing to do. Still, I remember feeling nervous about it for some reason. Maybe it was the setting of the reading. Maybe it was the author in question.

For several days, the sidewalks around the UI campus had been festooned with chalk announcements declaring that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was going to make a mid-day appearance on the steps of the Old Capitol. This would have been in the early 1990s. I was an English major and, since a memorable unit in my high school humanities class, a Vonnegut fan. So, with Cat’s Cradle nestled in my backpack, I joined a fairly sizeable crowd—I remember that some professors brought entire classes—on the Pentacrest on a beautiful day to await the man himself.

He wasn’t coming. A young man mounted the steps, announced that it was a hoax (the name of the organization supposedly putting on the event involved the French word for “sucker”), and took off running. This last was probably unnecessary. As I recall, no one gave chase and there wasn’t much of an outcry beyond the initial communal groan of disappointment and chagrin. My inexplicable nervousness mingled with the letdown to produce the bud of a bad mood, but it was, after all, a lovely day and, aside from a little class time for a few instructors and the cost of a copy of Cat’s Cradle, little had been lost.

It was this memory that sprang to mind when I heard the news about Vonnegut’s death. To be sure, it had to share time with other reminiscences. I had, after all, eventually seen Vonnegut lecture at UNI. The lecture was largely cribbed from Timequake, the book he had most recently produced, but was no less wonderful for all that. He was cantankerous, thought provoking, and hilarious.

He didn’t sign books that evening, but stood outside with the adoring crowd for a while—was it a smoking break at the lecture’s midpoint?—chatting away. I stood at the fringes, feeling something akin to the nervousness I’d felt that day in Iowa City. I remember lingering after the event was over to see if I could cajole him into signing a book for me, but he never reappeared.

And, of course, I have my memories of the high school class that introduced me to Vonnegut’s work. Perhaps learning to do the string trick known as Cat’s Cradle wasn’t absolutely essential to understanding the novel of that name, and perhaps many parents—mine to be sure—might have been uncomfortable with the amount of Valerie Perrine that was on display in her role as Montana Wildhack in the movie version of Slaughterhouse-Five, but that unit marked the beginning of my affection for Vonnegut. I admired him as a writer who refused to be pigeonholed, whose artistry was wrapped up in his ability to make a point without pedantry—and I love that he was part of the Iowa writing tradition.

Indeed, I always feel a surge of pride when I see the words “Iowa City, Iowa” at the end of Vonnegut’s introductory material in Slaughterhouse-Five. As it happened, a couple of months prior to Vonnegut’s death, I listened to a recording of actor Ethan Hawke reading Slaughterhouse-Five and was reminded of just what an important, impressive work it is. It is, of course, just one of many important pieces of literature that have germinated in Iowa City over the years, but it stands a bit apart from the others in my mind.

No doubt that has much to do with the personality and presence of its author, a man whose name, when chalked on a few high-traffic sidewalks, could draw a crowd to the Pentacrest. On that day, his failure to appear was a disappointment, to be sure, but as a result of that experience, I feel just a bit better equipped to deal with my sadness that we won’t see him anywhere at all anymore.

• • •
I would be remiss if I didn’t also note the passing of David Halberstam. While most of the obituaries have, quite rightly, focused on his reporting on the Vietnam War and books like The Best and the Brightest, for me Halberstam was something quite different: a great writer of baseball books. His October 1964 and Summer of ’49 are among my favorite histories of the game, and my signed copy of the latter is among the most treasured books in my collection.