This is the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography. I have called it "Slapstick" because it is grotesque, situational poetry--like the slapstick film comedies, especially those of Laurel and Hardy, of long ago.
It is about what life feels like to me.
There are all these tests of my limited agility and intelligence. They go on and on.
The fundamental joke with Laurel and Hardy, it seems to me, was that they did their best with every test.
They never failed to bargain in good faith with their destinies, and were screamingly adorable and funny on that account.
. . .
There was very little love in their films. There was often the situational poetry of marriage, which was something else again. It was yet another test--with comical possibilities, provided that everybody submitted to it in good faith.
Love was never at issue. And, perhaps because I was so perpetually intoxicated and instructed by Laurel and Hardy during my childhood in the Great Depression, I find it natural to discuss life without ever mentioning love.
It does not seem important to me.
What does seem important? Bargaining in good faith with destiny.
. . .
I have had some experiences with love, or think I have, anyway, although the ones I have liked best could easily be described as "common decency." I treated somebody well for a little while, or maybe even for a tremendously long time, and that person treated me well in turn. Love need not have had anything to do with it.
Also: I cannot distinguish between the love I have for people and the love I have for dogs.
When a child, and not watching comedians on film or listening to comedians on the radio, I used to spend a lot of time rolling around on rugs with uncritically affectionate dogs we had.
And I still do a lot of that. The dogs become tired and confused and embarrassed long before I do. I could to on forever.
. . .
One time, on his twenty-first birthday, one of my three adopted sons, who was about to leave for the Peace Corps in the Amazon Rain Forest, said to me, "You know--you've never hugged me."
So I hugged him. We hugged each other. It was very nice. It was like rolling around on a rug with a Great Dane we used to have.
. . .
Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous.
I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, "Please--a little less love, and a little more common decency."
. . .
My longest experience with common decency, surely, has been with my older brother, my only brother, Bernard, who is an atmospheric scientist in the State University of New York at Albany.
He is a widower, raising two young sons all by himself. He does it well. He has three grown-up sons besides.
We were given very different sorts of minds at birth. Bernard could never be a writer. I could never be a scientist. And, since we make our livings with our minds, we tend to think of them as gadgets--separate from our awarenesses, from our central selves.
. . .
We have hugged each other maybe three or four times--on birthdays, very likely, and clumsily. We have never hugged in moments of grief.
. . .
The minds we have been given enjoy the same sorts of jokes, at any rate--Mark Twain stuff, Laurel and Hardy stuff.
They are equally disorderly, too.
Here is an anecdote about my brother, which, with minor variations, could be told truthfully about me:
Bernard worked for the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York, for a while, where he discovered that silver iodide could precipitate certain sorts of clouds as snow or rain. His laboratory was a sensational mess, however, where a clumsy stranger could die in a thousand different ways, depending on where he stumbled.
The company had a safety officer who nearly swooned when he saw this jungle of deadfalls and snares and hair-trigger booby traps. He bawled out my brother.
My brother said this to him, tapping his own forehead with his fingertips: "If you think this laboratory is bad, you should see what it's like in here."
And so on.
. . .
I told my brother one time that whenever I did repair work around the house, I lost all my tools before I could finish the job.
"You're lucky," he said. "I always lose whatever I'm working on."
. . .
But, because of the sorts of minds we were given at birth, and in spite of their disorderliness, Bernard and I belong to artificial extended families which allow us to claim relatives all over the world.
He is a brother to scientists everywhere. I am a brother to writers everywhere.
This is amusing and comforting to both of us. It is nice.
It is lucky, too, for human beings need all the relatives they can get--as possible donors or receivers not necessarily of love, but of common decency.
. . .
When we were children in Indianapolis, Indiana, it appeared that we would always have an extended family of genuine relatives there. Our parents and grandparents, after all, had grown up there with shoals of siblings and cousins and uncles and aunts. Yes, and their relatives were all cultivated and gentle and prosperous, and spoke German and English gracefully.
. . .
They were all religious skeptics, by the way.
. . .
They might roam the wide world over when they were young, and often have wonderful adventures. But they were all told sooner or later that it was time for them to come home in Indianapolis, and to settle down. They invariably obeyed--because they had so many relatives there.
There was good things to inherit, too, of course--sane businesses, comfortable homes and faithful servants, growing mountains of china and crystal and silverware, reputations for honest dealing, cottages on Lake Maxinkuckee, along whose eastern shore my family once owned a village of summer homes.
. . .
But the delight the family took in itself was permanently crippled, I think, by the sudden American hatred for all things German which unsheathed itself when this country entered the First World War, five years before I was born.
Children in our family were no longer taught German. Neither were they encouraged to admire German music or literature or art or science. My brother and sister and I were raised as though Germany were as foreign to us as Paraguay.
We were deprived of Europe, except for what we might learn of it at school.
We lost thousands of years in a very short time--and then tens of thousands of American dollars after that, and the summer cottages and so on.
And our family became a lot less interesting, especially to itself.
So--by the time the Great Depression and a Second World War were over, it was easy for my brother and my sister and me to wander away from Indianapolis.
And, of all the relatives we left behind, not one could think of a reason why we should come home again.
We didn't belong anywhere in particular any more. We were interchangeable parts in the American machine.
. . .
Yes, and Indianapolis, which had once had a way of speaking English all its own, and jokes and legends and poets and villains and heroes all its own, and galleries for its own artists, had itself become an interchangeable part in the American machine.
It was just another someplace where automobiles lived, with a symphony orchestra and all. And a race track.
. . .
My brother and I still go back for funerals, of course. We went back last July for the funeral of our Uncle Alex Vonnegut, the younger brother of our late father--almost the last of our old-style relatives, of the native American patriots who did not fear God, and who had souls that were European.
He was eighty-seven years old. He was childless. He was a graduate of Harvard. He was a retired life insurance agent. He was a co-founder of the Indianapolis Chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous.
His obituary in the Indianapolis Star said that he himself was not an alcoholic.
This denial was at least partly a nice-Nellyism from the past, I think. He used to drink, I know, although alcohol never seriously damaged his work or made him wild. And then he stopped cold. And he surely must have introduced himself at meetings of A. A. as all members must, with the name--followed by this brave confession: "I'm an alcoholic."
Yes, and the paper's genteel denial of his ever having had trouble with alcohol had the old-fashioned intent of preserving from taint all the rest of us who had the same last name.
We would all have a harder time making good Indianapolis marriages or getting good Indianapolis jobs, if it were known for certain that we had had relatives who were once drunkards, or who, like my mother and my son, had gone at least temporarily insane.
It was even a secret that my paternal grandmother died of cancer.
Think of that.
. . .
At any rate, if Uncle Alex, the atheist, found himself standing before Saint Peter and the Pearly Gates after he died, I am certain he introduced himself as follows:
"My name is Alex Vonnegut. I'm an alcoholic."
Good for him.
. . .
I will guess, too, that it was loneliness as much as it was a dread of alcoholic poisoning which shepherded him into A. A. As his relatives died off or wandered away, or simply became interchangeable parts in the American machine, he went looking for new brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces and uncles and aunts, and so on. Which he found in A. A.
. . .
When I was a child, he used to tell me what to read, and then make sure I'd read it. It used to amuse him to take me on visits to relatives I'd never known I had.
He told me one time that he had been an American spy in Baltimore during the First World War, befriending German-Americans there. His assignment was to detect enemy agents. He detected nothing, for there was nothing to detect.
He told me, too, that he was an investigator of graft in New York City for a little while--before his parents told him it was time to come home and settle down. He uncovered a scandal involving large expenditures for the maintenance of Grant's Tomb, which required very little maintenance indeed.
. . .
I received the news of his death over a white, push-button telephone in my house in that part of Manhattan known as "Turtle Bay." There was a philodendron nearby.
I am still not clear how I got here. There are no turtles. There is no bay.
Perhaps I am the turtle, able to live simply anywhere, even underwater for short periods, with my home on my back.
. . .
So I called my brother in Albany. He was about to turn sixty. I was fifty-two.
We were certainly no spring chickens.
But Bernard still played the part of an older brother. It was he who got us our seat on Trans World Airlines and our car at the Indianapolis airport, and our double room with twin beds at a Ramada Inn.
The funeral itself, like the funerals of our parents and of so many other close relatives, was as blankly secular, as vacant of ideas about God or the afterlife, or even about Indianapolis, as our Ramada Inn.
. . .
So my brother and I strapped ourselves into a jet-propelled airplane bound from New York City to Indianapolis. I sat on the aisle. Bernard took the window seat, since he was an atmospheric scientist, since clouds had so much more to say to him than they did to me.
We were both over six feet tall. We still had most of our hair, which was brown. We had identical mustaches--duplicates of our late father's mustache.
We were harmless looking. We were a couple of nice old Andy Gumps.
There was an empty seat between us, which was spooky poetry. It could have been a seat for our sister Alice, whose age was halfway between mine and Bernard's. She wasn't in that seat and on her way to her beloved Uncle Alex's funeral, for she had died among strangers in New Jersey, of cancer--at the age of forty-one.
"Soap opera!" she said to my brother and me one time, when discussing her own impending death. She would be leaving four young boys behind, without any mother.
"Slapstick," she said.
. . .
Copyright © 1999 by Kurt Vonnegut. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.