I read Slaughterhouse Five, the first time, when I was ten. I remember it clearly because I consumed the book more than anything: I had never read anything that so clearly used the style and conceits of science fiction while still being literary. I had also never read anything that so precisely captured the essence of war and the mechanics and grief of the kind of human suffering inflected by other humans.
It's a complicated book, a complicated work, and I can vividly recall curling into my father's La-Z-Boy to finish the last few chapters. It was summer, hot and sticky in Central California, and my brothers were outside playing in the sprinklers. It was a few years before things got terrible in my family, though the harbingers of those times were starting to show: worn edges of t-shirts and the too-empty freezer and the oil stains in the drive way from the cars we kept trading down.
And there was this book about war, but about so much more than that. It's about memory and loss and suffering. But like all of Vonnegut's work, it retains in it a simple, sad beauty so profound that, when I finished the book, I laid it down and cried. I didn't understand all of it, to be sure. I was ten, afterall, and even a precocious ten-year old is still just a ten-year old. But I felt something that went beyond all the books I had read before, and I felt it, even though it would take me 20 more years to be able to explain it the way I am now.
Kurt Vonnegut died Wednesday, April 11, 2007 at the age of 84. "When Hemmingway died he put a period on his life, old age is more like a semicolon," Vonnegut once said. He said this with a measure of bitterness; his own suicide attempt in 1984 had failed. I think, though, this is one of the few times Vonnegut had it wrong, and I can't help but think of the German farmer in Slaughterhouse Five, his voice calling out to the POWs he's given harbor to in his barn. In the doorway, he turns back to them. "Good night, sweet Americans," he says. It is quiet and it lingers. It's no period, certainly, not even quite the end of the book. But it's a kind of ending, all the same.