Department of Regret, Kurt Vonnegut Edition
A few years before Kurt Vonnegut died, I paid a visit to the studio of Joe Petro III of Lexington, Kentucky. Petro was Vonnegut’s late-life collaborator on several series of silkscreened art based upon Vonnegut’s drawings, some of which were new, and some of which were elaborations upon the drawings he had incorporated into middle-period-and-later books such as Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, and Hocus Pocus.
Petro generously offered me a tour of his studio, where, in addition to his work with Vonnegut, he had completed work for the likes of Ralph Steadman and Greenpeace. The Greenpeace work had caused him some problems, so he was a little nervous about people knowing where he lived. Nonetheless, he wanted to do his part to champion the work that had become the passion of Vonnegut’s late life, so he consented to an interview, and then he consented to put me in touch with Vonnegut, who had indicated that he, too, was willing to yammer with a nobody such as I was, so long as that yammering was about drawings and silkscreenings.
What happened? I never went through with it. Part of me felt uncomfortable at the discomfort I was causing Petro by doing the project at all. And part of me was plain intimidated by Vonnegut, whose work had been my gateway drug into hardcore literature (and whose work I continue to admire, haters be damned.) Uncharacteristically, I got all squishy about all the privacies I was violating, so I let it go.
A few weeks ago, I read a reminiscence of Vonnegut by Michael Silverblatt, the host of KCRW’s Bookworm. Silverblatt said that at one of Vonnegut’s late-life readings, he slipped Silverblatt his phone number, with a message saying that Vonnegut was very lonely and could use a friend. Would Silverblatt call?
I did the math and saw that the timeframes — Silverblatt’s meeting with Vonnegut and my meeting with Petro — matched up fairly closely. What Silverblatt did was follow up, calling Vonnegut at regular intervals, talking about literature, and providing the warmth of friendship-from-a-distance. What I did was nothing.
I won’t pretend that Vonnegut would have wanted to be my buddy. I was a kid, and Silverblatt was an adult, a first-rate intellect, and a former student of Donald Barthelme’s to boot. They had matters to discuss, whereas I had learning I needed to do to get from here to there. But I’ll always regret that once upon a time I had a chance to share five or fifteen minutes talking with somebody whose work made me feel like I could make for myself a different and better life, and whose work made me feel less alone, and, hell, maybe for five or fifteen minutes I could have offered him even the faint companionship of an acolyte on his best behavior, trying to act not like an acolyte but like a professionally interested interviewer, whose very presence validated the late-life project of a man whose life project was to bring comfort to the rightly cynical and tell the truth to the uppity and falsely righteous. I could have given him that much, at least.