Thursday, May 10, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut and David Halberstam


When I was in the 8th grade, we had to choose a book and write a book report on it. I looked in my dad's bookcase, and chose "Breakfast of Champions", simply because of the cover. The book follows the travels of Kilgore Trout, which some say is Vonnegut's alter-ego. A bit of science-fiction, and really deadpan humor made this one of my favorites, and I wrote the report on it. And then found more of Vonnegut's work.

Kurt Vonnegut and David Halberstam both died recently. Two of my favorite writers, with two completely different styles of writing.

Vonnegut writes mostly semi-fiction (he sort of mirrors his life, and attitudes in his story lines and characters). His most famous being Slaughterhouse-Five, deals with the events at Dresden towards the end of World War Two. Vonnegut was taken prisoner in that city, and the Allies decided to bomb the hell out of the city to bring the war to an end. They covered the city in bombs and fire, taking many, many civilian casualties, including many Allied POW's. Vonnegut somehow survived, and wrote this "fictional" account, fictional because it involves time travel, some sci-fi, and, of course, Kilgore Trout.

Halberstam writes non-fiction, mostly on sports, and history. The first book of his that I read was "Summer of '49", about the American League pennant race, particularly the rivalry between the Red Sox and the Yankees. The Sox held a 12 game lead into August only to blow it, losing the pennant on the final game of the season. The last book of his I read was "Bill Belichick: The Education of a Coach", about the best coach in the game today.
In between there's his historical books, including "The best and the brightest" about the men who helped the nation sink deeper into Vietnam...and "War in a time of Peace", about Bush, Clinton, and the military.
He not only knew how to write, but he knew how to speak, how to convey his thoughts, how to explain and inform without reporting to cliches, and without putting the reader to sleep.

Coincidentally, last month I picked up what turned out to be Vonnegut's last book, "A man without a country". Short, sharp, simple, it's a book of his musings and ramblings. In one chapter, in a paragraph, he writes about Dresden, telling how, while sitting in the celler, being bombed from above, a fellow prisoner says that he felt like a duchess in a mansion on a cold and rainy night, "I wonder what the poor poeple are doing tonight". He writes that no one laughed, but the absurdity of it made them feel glad to be alive.

And it almost reads like an epitaph.