WARNING: The following essay contains the words "asshole," "prick," "damn," "dick," "dickishness," "son of a bitch," "assholes" (plural), "dick" (again) and "tool." If you are offended by such language, you should've stopped reading after the first "asshole" in this warning.
It's a good thing Raymond Chandler's dead. For one thing, if he were alive he'd be 123 years old, and I can't imagine that would be much fun. For another, even if he'd only lasted to 116 or so, I might've actually met him (assuming they were still wheeling him out at mystery conventions), and I'm glad that never happened.
Chandler, you see, is one of my heroes. He also seems to have been a colossal asshole. The little I've read about Chandler makes him sound like a mean drunk who was never sober long enough to be nice. If our lives had overlapped, I think there's a good chance he would've been a prick to me, or to one of my friends, and then all those wonderful books would be ruined for me forever.
I can't say I'm glad Kurt Vonnegut's dead -- the world was a better place with him in it -- but I will say this: I'm damn glad the guy wasn't my dad. And that's too bad, because he's an even bigger hero to me than Chandler. Vonnegut's my biggest hero, actually, and has been for 30 years. And yup -- the guy was a dick.
Or so Charles J. Shields would have me believe. I just finished reading Shields' new(ish) biography of Vonnegut, And So It Goes, and, alas, starting on page 82 there seemed to be dickishness in every other line. That's because it's on the bottom of page 82 that Vonnegut gets married for the first time. Though he could certainly be a son of a bitch away from home -- after his career took off in the late '60s, for instance, he betrayed and abandoned the two editors who'd kept him going through the lean years -- it was with his family that Kurt Vonnegut, Bastard, reigned supreme.
He was selfish. He was demanding and temperamental. He was irresponsible, untrustworthy and a bit of a phony. He was mean. He was, in short, everything Kurt Vonnegut the author told us not to be. Which made him a hypocrite, too.
So I'm grateful that when I did meet Kurt Vonnegut, it happened like this: I found one of his books in the school library and I took it home and I read it and I loved it. (In my memory, the book was Breakfast of Champions, but it's hard to imagine a teeny little high school in West Virginia having a book with drawings of "wide open beavers" and assholes on its shelves. But if I'm remembering correctly, then "SAAAALLLLL-UTE!!!" to you, Bridgeport High School.)
I quickly read every Vonnegut book I could. They were funny. They were worldly and wise. They were outrageous, sad and sincere. They were kind. I truly believe they helped make me a better person, and how many books can you say that about?
About 200 pages into So It Goes, I had a scary moment. I've been slowly working my way through Vonnegut's oeuvre the last few years, rereading (and, for the most part, still loving) books I hadn't picked up in decades. But this week, thanks to Shields, I had to stop and ask myself: Can I read this dick anymore? Have his books been ruined for me?
The moment passed, I'm happy to say, and I'm looking forward to revisiting Deadeye Dick or maybe Mother Night next. Kurt Vonnegut, human being, tool, is dead. Yet Kurt Vonnegut, author, hero, will live on and on and on. And for that I'm very, very glad.