Kurt Vonnegut’s "Slaughterhouse-Five" was one of what I called the “I Can Read” books for stoners when I was in high school. I went to a continuation school, which was where the state of California deemed teens should do their time after they dropped out in the '70s, and as you might imagine, most of the students arrived each day half-baked and left completely wasted. We had recesses between classes — this in my junior year of high school — and we would stand in a circle on the lawn of the abandoned mental institution where the school was located and pass joints, bongs and pipes in preparation for the next class.
There was a small shelf of well-thumbed paperbacks in the library there, mostly thin volumes with no big words and some rather supernatural themes. Hesse, Brautigan and Vonnegut were among the authors represented, though many of my peers preferred comic books. I think I probably read "Slaughterhouse-Five" for the first time then, though honestly I don’t remember much about those months. I do remember picking up Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” which helped scare me straight.
Now, more than 40 years later, the story of Billy Pilgrim, accidental time-traveler, stands up pretty well. Vonnegut had an original, deceptively casual voice that suited the times, but he was fishing in deeper waters than I realized then. During the Vietnam War, it was one of the more popular anti-war books, along with Joseph Heller’s "Catch 22" and Dalton Trumbo’s "Johnny Got His Gun," and I think those of us who still lived in the shadow of the draft loved the longer title inside the book: “Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.”
The author introduces himself as a minor character early on, and appears again during the firebombing of Dresden, observing the action as he describes himself, in a sort of metafictional mode, coming to terms with the tale he was trying to tell. “Shortly before my father died he told me, ‘You know you never wrote a story with a villain in it,’” Vonnegut writes. “I told him that was one of the things I learned in college after the war.”
There were plenty of real villains to go around in WWII, but the conflict that the book's hero recalls all happens toward the end of the war in Europe. Like Vonnegut, Billy Pilgrim was captured by the Germans after the Battle of the Bulge, and like the author, he witnessed the destruction of Dresden, when the Allies dropped nearly 4,000 tons of explosives on the city and killed 25,000 people.
The phrase “So it goes,” repeated 179 times (someone counted) in "Slaughterhouse-Five" became a sort of verbal tic for many Vonnegut fans at the time. Linda Ellerbee used it in her newscasts and I thought it smacked of cheap cynicism then, but Vonnegut’s cynicism was hard-won: He uses the phrase every time someone or something dies in the book, and a lot of people die. Most of them quite pointlessly, though I imagine Vonnegut would be amused by the notion that there might be a point to anyone’s death.
Having his hero “unstuck in time” allowed Vonnegut to jump-cut the story of Pilgrim’s life — he time-travels between the war and making love and his own death in a single page, and George Roy Hill had a lot of fun leaping from one place to another in his 1972 film version (which Vonnegut called “a flawless translation of my novel”). The women are two-dimensional (Pilgrim’s wife is a pathetic, compulsive eater, and the dream woman the creatures of Tralfamadore bring him is a porn star), but so are the men: Paul Lazzaro is a psychotic criminal, the English teacher shot for looting is always described as “poor old Edgar Derby,” and Pilgrim himself is a spectral figure, one of the most passive heroes in American literature.
“Every so often, for no apparent reason, Billy Pilgrim would find himself weeping,” Vonnegut writes. “No one had ever caught Billy doing it. Only the doctor knew. It was an extremely quiet thing Billy did, and not very moist.”
But much of the book is still funny, darkly funny in a way that Mark Twain, the author’s hero, might have appreciated. When Eliot Rosewater (one of Vonnegut’s recurring characters, along with the sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout) meets Pilgrim’s wife, she shows him a diamond her husband found at Dresden and turned into an engagement ring. “That’s the attractive thing about war,” said Rosewater. “Absolutely everybody gets a little something.”
I met Vonnegut years later. I’d just moved to New York and a San Francisco magazine asked me to interview him about his new novel, "Hocus Pocus" (1990). I was amazed to find him sitting on the stoop of his house in Turtle Bay, nursing a Coke and a Pall Mall, and probably a hangover. I felt like Dante bumping into Virgil and he graciously made me coffee and talked with me for about an hour, supplying a lot of great quotes. But when I went to turn the tape over he sort of deflated and suddenly looked very tired. He’d had enough, I could tell, and when I asked him if the bombing of Dresden was the defining moment in his life, he dismissed me by saying, “That was just one of a million things that happened to me.”
When Billy Pilgrim is abducted by the Tralfamadorians he asks, “Why me?”
“That is a very Earthling question,” they tell him, and then ask him to think of a bug trapped in amber. “Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim,” they say, their thoughts conveying the words in his mind as their spaceship takes him to another world, “trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”