Small and unexpected resurrections of a kind help lighten the weight of the inevitable consequence of aging, those losses of people and things that you know must happen but you regret nonetheless.
One such loss for me was when the group R.E.M. called it a day. So it is fitting that I sit writing these recommendations while listening to Unplugged 1991 2001, a beautiful and bittersweet resurrection of everything I love about R.E.M. and everything I miss, mostly that there will never be a new R.E.M. album.
When Kurt Vonnegut died 11 April 2007, I cried on and off for several days, unable to hold inside that I was filled with Vonnegut’s art. I found myself crying as I came to the end of the first official biography of Vonnegut as well, prompting a poem.
Since Vonnegut’s death, we have been gifted small and unexpected resurrections, including two new books.
If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young is a collection of Vonnegut’s graduation speeches, a form that suited Vonnegut perfectly since he worked on a basic framework found among comedians: The Joke. And jokes are perfect for graduations where people invited to give speeches often take themselves and the ceremony far too seriously (see my own tongue-in-cheek graduation speech written mostly as a homage to Vonnegut).
If this collection isn’t perfect for a graduation gift, what is?
In “How I Learned from a Teacher What Artists Do,” Vonnegut employs his standard speech format, exhibiting his mainstay of seeming simplicity and dark bitterness masking crystal clear Truth and genuine kindness, or better phrased, a genuine call to kindness among all humans and for all things of this only world we know:
There are three things that I very much want to say in this brief hail and farewell. They are things which haven’t been said enough to you freshly minted graduates nor to your parents or guardians, nor to me, nor to your teachers. I will say these in the body of my speech, I’m just setting you up for this.
First, I will say thank you. Second, I will say I am truly sorry—now that is the striking novelty among the three. We live in a time when nobody ever seems to apologize for anything; they just weep and raise hell on the Oprah Winfrey Show. The third thing I want to say to you at some point— probably close to the end—is, “We love you.” Now if I fail to say any of those three things in the body of this great speech, hold up your hands, and I will remedy the deficiency.
I probably fell in love hard with the work of Vonnegut with Breakfast of Champions, although Vonnegut himself offered only an average grade for the work. Part of the attraction, I know, are the crude drawings, Vonnegut’s artwork that blends his calling to capture the world simply—I feel Thoreau in the background—and to remain true to his primary love, words.
I probably came to understand fully the work for Vonnegut with Cat’s Cradle, which Vonnegut graded highly also, and I return to it often to help me navigate the world too complex for a humankind unkind.
However, like his A Man without a Country, the collected graduation speeches are punctuated with his drawings, something that remains possibly the most endearing quality of published Vonnegut, which leads me to the other new Vonnegut resurrection—Kurt Vonnegut Drawings.
There is an apt and warm touch to this collection of Vonnegut’s visual art, the “drawings” in the title. Vonnegut, if anything, is an artist that embodies childhood as well as a glorious faith in childhood. When he is most serious and most angry, he appears to be his most playful and childlike, but never childish (preview some of the pieces in this review).
In my most recent poem, Vonnegut’s Bluebeard came rushing back to me, unbidden. I preface the poem with a line from the novel and then include an allusion to the novel’s ending. Bluebeard is one of Vonnegut’s many faux autobiographies that exist in a netherworld between fiction and nonfiction that forces the reader to consider everything she/he knows about genre while also setting all of those assumptions aside.
There is a good deal of Vonnegut to find in Bluebeard and Rabo Karabekian (who confesses [for Vonnegut?], “I may have been a lousy painter, but what a collector I turned out to be!”); just as there is much in both that tells us almost nothing about Vonnegut.
Having spent a year or so of my life as a biographer, and then having read dozens of biographies, I am under no delusion Vonnegut was some saint of a human as he walked the earth daily. Who is?
But—despite Vonnegut being mostly a man of letters—I find his drawings help me come to terms with the complete Vonnegut, the human Vonnegut wanted to be, the humans Vonnegut wanted all of us to be.
Vonnegut shall not pass for me until I too pass because he remains in that thing that a small group of humans reach for, frantically I think as a very human thing to do—our shared frailty and mortality coming up against our longing for immortality: Art.
Buy these books.
Hold the hardback copies in your hands to feel the weight, and then flip each over for the two photos of Vonnegut.
On the back cover of the speeches, Vonnegut is striking a Tom Wolfe pose and look, foregrounded by a pigeon just slightly out of focus.
But save the back cover of the drawings for last: Vonnegut sitting, weathered face balanced beautifully by weathered sneakers and then ceramic Laurel and Hardy on the table beside him.
Please, buy these books, but buy extra copies.
Hand them out to strangers as you walk down the street.
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