Vonnegut nails the hypocrisy of Western civilization over and over

Whenever I get to Manhattan, I try to make time to visit the Strand Bookstore on Broadway and 12th Street. It’s a large, grand, multi-story (there’s a pun) stone building right on the corner with “Four Miles of Used Books” proudly proclaimed on a big sign. The Strand sells new and used books, but it specializes in buying out entire collections from estates. If you love books, there’s no better place to be.

You would think the Strand would have all kinds of books, and you’d be right. Name the genre and the Strand has it. There is even one whole floor dedicated to glossy picture books with archival-type photographs on every subject imaginable. The skilled use of a camera can of course be artistic. I’ve never seen so many of these truly beautiful “coffee table” kinds of books in one place before. The Strand really does have everything.

Here’s the thing, though: As many times as I’ve been to the Strand, I’ve never — not even once — found a book by Kurt Vonnegut there. Isn’t that curious? He had a long and noteworthy career, and he sold a ton of books. How could it be that his books are never available in one of the largest bookstores in the country?

Based on my own experience, it’s this: Those of us who are Kurt Vonnegut fans are so devoted to him we could never give up our copies. To true Vonnegut fans like me his books are sacred. I’ll bet when an estate comes in that contains Vonnegut books at the Strand, they are greedily snapped up by his many rabid fans. So that must be why I’ve never seen his books there.

Kurt Vonnegut has many local connections. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, he attended Cornell University, served in the Army, studied engineering at Carnegie Mellon, and worked at General Electric in Schenectady (a lot of “Player Piano,” his first novel, is based on his experience at GE), and lived for a long time in both Cape Cod and Manhattan.

The defining event of his life came when, as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany during World War II, he survived the firebombing of the city by the allies. This seminal event, along with the negative effects of technology and the loss of jobs it creates, would affect his worldview and influence his writing for his entire career.

Many people classify Vonnegut’s writing style as “gallows humor.” I never had that opinion myself. However, the Guilderland Public Library has been closed for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This forced me to re-read many of my own books.

At one point, I read five Kurt Vonnegut books in a row — “Jailbird,” “Deadeye Dick,” “Galapagos,” “Bluebeard,” and “Hocus Pocus.” After doing that, I have to say, I had to stop reading his books and switch to something else.

Between these five books and the pandemic and the protests over the horrific George Floyd killing by the police in Minneapolis, it was just too much, let’s put it this way, pessimism. Even though Vonnegut is my favorite author, there’s only so much stark reality — even when it’s framed in brilliant social commentary — one can take.

You’ve never read Vonnegut? His writing can be described as a sardonically witty critique of the human condition. So much of the “phoniness,” (to borrow from Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s seminal “Catcher in the Rye”) of modern society: doublespeak in politics and advertising, materialistic behavior, the military-industrial complex, racism, wealth inequality, and more are all fair game for Vonnegut’s caustic wit.

To put it bluntly, he just nails all the hypocrisy of Western civilization over and over. That’s why he’s so great. His work still stands up so well because people never change.

It’s interesting to note that many have tried to bring Vonnegut to the big and small screens, but for some reason it never works. There were a few TV specials with some adaptations of his short stories that were so-so.

Apparently there was a movie made of his blockbuster “Slaughterhouse Five,” but I never saw it, and I’m not alone because it was a box-office flop. The movie of his that I did see was based on my favorite Vonnegut book, “Breakfast of Champions.” It was so bad, and so poorly written and acted, that one wonders if the producers even read the original book.

Sad, but it just reinforces the point that Vonnegut is best experienced the old-fashioned way: read alone by a single person. When you do it that way, the many fruits of the experience can be contemplated and enjoyed in perpetuity.

“Breakfast of Champions” is not considered to be one of Vonnegut's better books, and yet it’s my favorite by far. In it, recurring character Kilgore Trout, the failed science-fiction writer, takes a journey to an art convention.

Vonnegut uses the trip and the art convention to skewer just about everything and everyone in modern American society perfectly, which is why I still read this book at least twice a year and literally have to force myself to not read it more often (life is too short to keep reading the same book over and over again, no matter how good it is).

If you’ve ever wondered about why advertising is so bad, and why so much modern art is just, er, nothing, and why achieving material success often leaves you wanting, and how companies can dump toxic waste in our rivers, and how we have one face in public and one face in private, and, and, and — you get the idea. “Breakfast of Champions” has all this and Vonnegut’s own child-like drawings to boot. I just can’t get enough of it.

Though Vonnegut was a noted atheist and humanist, he cites the Bible in many of his stories, demonstrating a complex understanding and interpretation of the holy book. Clearly, like many of us, he struggled with how the simple messages of Jesus Christ — including love your neighbor, and let he without sin first cast a stone — could become so perverted by so many and used as justification for all kinds of atrocities.

It’s not an easy topic, and I admire him for making it a central theme in his writing. Thinking about something is the first step to trying to make it better.

In one of my college English courses, we had to pick out an author and write a 25-page research paper, analyzing his life and one of his books. Even at that time, the mid to late 1980s, I had already voraciously read all of Vonnegut’s books that were published up to then, so naturally that’s who I wanted to write about.

My professor, unfortunately, had other ideas: He claimed Vonnegut hadn’t been around long enough to have lots of literary criticism to draw on for my research. Huh? I didn’t agree then and don’t agree now, but he was the boss.

So I had to switch to Hermann Hesse. “Siddhartha” is a great book, with its symbolic river of life rolling by as you sit under the banyan tree contemplating your navel and all that. But I so, so, so, wanted to immerse myself in Vonnegut for that paper, and I still ache inside that I didn’t get to do so. Oh well, as Mick sings, “You can’t always get what you want.”

In writing this, I got to thinking about why I’m so attracted to “curmudgeonly” writers like Vonnegut, Andy Rooney, Mark Twain, and so many more. I think it relates to my own personal experience.

I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, I know that, yet I am able to think coherently about what goes on in the country and the world. It seems obvious to me that we can do great things when we come together — space travel, efficient agriculture, new medicines, and so much more.

Yet we are constantly sidetracked by falling into factions: country vs. country, conservative vs. liberal, black vs. white, men vs. women, and on and on. How can one not get cranky when one thinks of what we could achieve and what we instead devolve into? So frustrating.

Yet I think, by throwing light on thorny social problems, these kinds of authors do us all a great service. Exposing dirt and mold to bright light is the first step in getting rid of it.

I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. Go to your favorite bookstore (make it the Strand if you happen to be in Manhattan; I promise you’ll love it) or library and pick up some Kurt Vonnegut. Be prepared to be simultaneously elated and saddened, but most of all, amazed that such cogent analyses of the very core of our lifestyle is still so relevant — indeed, so explanatory — today.

And so it goes.