There’s a bar in Bloomington, Indiana, about three blocks west of the Indiana University campus. It’s called Nick’s English Hut, but all the students know it simply as Nick’s.
When you walk into Nick’s you see a wide aisle with booths along either side. Back when I attended IU, the booths were wooden and hard. There’s a small gold plaque screwed into one booth on the left side of the aisle. It commemorates a night in 1983 when the writer Kurt Vonnegut walked in with three IU students, sat down, and had a couple of beers.
The plaque is actually in the wrong booth; the correct booth is one over.
I should know. I was one of the three IU students who accompanied Vonnegut to Nick’s.
Vonnegut was the first subversive writer I ever read (unless you count Maurice Sendak). I discovered him on my parents’ bookshelf, a paperback copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. I was 15 years old. I was transfixed from the opening line: “All this happened, more or less.” I had never read anything like this novel, the story of Billy Pilgrim, his “bad chemicals” and the firebombing of Dresden. It was sparse, it was cynical, it was compact, yet it yearned for hope.
I dove into Vonnegut’s work with the zeal of a convert, which I largely was. From there I went to Breakfast of Champions, followed by God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, to Slapstick, which was a Christmas gift from my mother. Vonnegut was the first writer I ever consumed so passionately that was still alive and working. The news of a new book being published was cause for great celebration and anticipation.
Fast forward to 1983. I was a junior at IU, and I worked on the student programming committee that brought lectures, films, and concerts to the campus. I was on the lecture subcommittee and after years of attempts, we finally got Vonnegut to come to IU for a lecture. Even though I was 21 and saw myself as way too cool for words, I couldn’t wait to shake the hand of my literary idol.
The lecture Vonnegut gave that night to a sold out crowd was How to Get a Job Like Mine, a stump speech he had been delivering on college campuses for years. He carried the text of the speech with him to the podium, even though he probably had it memorized. He diagrammed Shakespeare with the aid of an overhead projector. He told the audience that every story needed a character like Iago. He railed against what was then called a “word processor” proclaiming that inventions that put people (like his typist) out of a job were unworthy (his idea of a perfect invention was the paper clip). He held the audience in the palm of his hand and the applause was nothing short of rapturous.
Back at an informal reception at the student union, Vonnegut fielded questions. Yes, he said, Kilgore Trout would reappear someday. Yes, he liked the film adaptation of Slaughterhouse—Five. No, he had nothing to do with the film.
During the reception, I was standing next to the chairman of the lecture subcommittee, a frat rat whose name I don’t recall, but whom I’ll call Doug. Vonnegut leaned into Doug as he was signing autographs and asked if there was somewhere nearby where he could get a beer. We piled into a university vehicle (how we had one at our disposal escapes my memory) and drove off to Nick’s.
I was sitting on the outside of one side of the booth at Nick’s. Doug was to my left and Vonnegut was directly across from me. Baskets of popcorn appeared and Vonnegut reached into his suit coat pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, which he lit one after another (this was 1983, remember).
I was utterly stupefied, unable to fully comprehend the fact I was seated at a booth in a bar, sharing popcorn, beer and second hand smoke with Kurt Vonnegut. My self-consciousness shifted into overdrive. I could barely stammer anything remotely intelligent or articulate. I remember asking him what he read for pleasure. He sighed and confessed that he read a lot but rarely for pleasure. He felt obliged to read new books so he could stay on top of what was discussed at the cocktail parties and dinners he attended. He felt burdened to read the books of his many friends, just so he could remain social and polite.
I’ve thought a lot about my brief encounter with Vonnegut since I heard of his death. I wasn’t terribly surprised at his passing. There had been rumors of declining health and of injuries sustained in a house fire. Truthfully, even 24 years ago he looked like he already had one foot in the grave. His face was haggard and drawn, he appeared too thin, and he smoked like a blast furnace.
And yet, even though it’s been at least 15 years since I read any of his work, I always thought of him as being there. To me, he was the Old Faithful of literature, occasionally blasting a hot plume of words, then settling down beneath the surface until another eruption seemed appropriate.
I get nervous about returning to the work of my idols after too many years have gone by. I have a suspicion that Vonnegut, like Ayn Rand and J.D. Salinger, is a writer best experienced in the bloom of one’s youth. I am middle-aged now, about to turn 45, and I’d hate to revisit his books and wonder what all the fuss was about.
Yet, two of my favorite Vonneguts are staring at me from the bookshelf: Jailbird, his fictional explanation of the Nixon White House, and Palm Sunday, a marvelous anthology of non-fiction pieces. Plus, there is that copy of Deadeye Dick that he signed for me after our beers at Nick’s.
But maybe all you need is to be young at heart, and Vonnegut will speak to you again. I hope so. God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut.