Mr. Vonnegut: You are dead. How does it feel?
Does it feel like anything?
My senior year of high school, I was assigned a short essay on any subject of my choosing. I chose to write about you. My essay was a list of the reasons you should have been dead. This was 2003, so I suppose you were 81 at the time. That was the first reason I gave; you were simply too old to go on for much longer. The second reason was World War II, which I understand to have been the death of something like 60,000,000 people. You fought in that war. You should have died.
The third reason was Dresden. You were there when Allied forces burned the city down. More than 100,000 people died in that fire, but you were lucky. You went on living. You should have died the way those other people did. You've said as much yourself.
The fourth reason was that you, perhaps inspired by your mother's suicide, had once tried to kill yourself. I have always suspected you really tried more than once, but that one was on the records for everybody to see. You tried to kill yourself, but you failed. You should have died.
The fifth reason was your notorious and constant chain-smoking, which should be lethal to anybody who tries it.
My argument, as I'm sure you can see, was pretty much unbeatable. Since you weren't dead yet, this could only mean you would die very soon. I came to terms with that. It was important for me to come to terms with that, because you were quickly becoming my secret father.
A secret father is a symptom of the sickness of our times, but a secret father is one of the great advantages my generation has over the ones that have come before it. While the children of one-income families have often felt neglected by their real fathers, they have only recently stopped eating or speaking with them at the end of the day. The children of two-income families, like myself, have also stopped seeing their mothers.
A secret father is one way these children can live without suffering from a lack of love. You get a secret father by choosing a man you admire and then imagining that he is watching over you, guiding you as a good parent would. This kind of imagining, which I did whenever I read one of your books, is only necessary because children feel so lonely now. But it is also an advantage, because secret fathers are chosen, while real fathers are not. Not too long ago, sons did the work their fathers did. Now their secret fathers are chosen because they do the work the sons want to do. You were my secret father in part because you wrote so well, and were very successful as a writer, and I wanted to write so well, and to be very successful as a writer. My real father takes calls for a large corporation.
The ability to choose to love you more than I loved him was, I'm sure you can see, a powerful advantage.
When I went to Butler University to study writing, I took your books with me. Several of the books were stolen from a local library. I still worked at that library, and yours weren't the only books I stole, though they were the best. I stole those books because that library kept discarding them.
They kept discarding your books, Mr. Vonnegut, to make room for the works of such fine authors as Danielle Steele and Tom Clancy.
I didn't know when I went to Butler that you had studied there in 1942, a time when it was apparently still possible for a writer of fiction to achieve a C average, which you did. Nobody gets a C anymore, sir. Tuition has gotten so high and egos so tender that they have to give us all A's.
Because I have so few friends and am such a generally objectionable character, I spent most of my freshman year reading your books in public places and waiting for someone to notice. I don't think this has ever worked in the whole sordid history of lonely young people. Certainly it didn't work for me.
Sometimes, as I read your books, I wondered if you had died yet. It was coming soon, I was sure.
Last year, Susan Neville, who I'm told once interviewed you, told me you would be coming to give a speech in April of 2007. She told me because everybody in the Butler English department knew how happy I would be. The next semester, the one I am finishing now, I registered for a class on the writers who were coming to speak at Butler. You were one of them. That's why I took the class.
The teacher of that course, Dr. Jim Watt, assigned us three short essays. He called them “gifts,” though. They were supposed to be personal letters designed to make their recipients, the semester's visiting writers, feel good and useful. I wrote one to the poet Franz Wright, which I am told he now keeps in a box of documents he reads to cheer himself up when he's considering suicide. I wrote another to the novelist Jane Hamilton, whose work I dislike strongly. I was kind anyway.
My final letter was supposed to be to you, Mr. Vonnegut.
There was also the chance that I would get to meet you on the night you came to speak to us. My name was on a list somewhere, I am told. I was hoping to shake your hand and walk away briskly. You didn't need to deal with someone as hungry as me.
Now you are dead. You died in Indianapolis' official “Year of Vonnegut.” You died the day the mayor declared your novel Slaughterhouse-Five the book that everyone in the city should read this year.
This year is 2007. You are 84. Mr. Vonnegut: You are dead. I thought I was going to get to write you a letter. Instead I am writing your ghost, if you have one.
I thought you had written a whole lot of books. It turns out you only wrote 14, which is still pretty good. I'll have to ration what's left. I've got a long way to go before I can die too.
You once wrote in one of those books that telling somebody you loved them was like putting a gun to their head; there's only one acceptable response. I wasn't going to tell you I loved you in my letter. I was only going to tell you how important you are to me, how I learned writing from you, how I learned human decency from your writing.
But now that you are dead, Mr. Vonnegut, I can't hurt you. So: I love you. I loved you. I love you. How does it feel?
Does it feel like anything?
Mike Meginnis realizes, once daily, he should have been a musician. He blogs politics and culture at mikemeginnis.com