BILLY HOUGH (SCREAM ALONG WITH BILLY) ON KURT VONNEGUT: There was never any real possibility that I was going to be anything but a writer. Growing up in a house full of books, with two school-teacher parents, and little of interest going on in Greater Meridian Mississippi I began writing early and never stopped. My first attempt at a novel was begun in the school library when I was 11. It was about a recently divorced woman moving to New York with her two children, one 11 and one 5. It never occurred to me that I was the same age as the 11 year old, for I was firmly embedded in the sexually frustrated, broken hearted, angsty brain of my 35-year-old female protagonist. This struck me as neither ironic nor ridiculous.
When I was in college, I began writing plays. For two reasons. Firstly, it was my best chance at bedding some of the older boys and girls in the department-by writing choice roles for them. (This never worked.) (Well, once-but it terrified me when it came about and I kicked through the back door with my ridiculous R.E.M. inspired combat boots and ran screaming into the Mississippi night). The other reason was because the slate of plays we were producing at the time were all on this side of PG. Nothing remotely controversial in the mix. Nothing dirty, nothing non-Christian, nothing sexual. Basically Ah Wilderness and Barefoot in the Park. Hence I began very cleverly constructing plays that adhered to none of the rules of the traditional theater. Characters with no names, sometimes mute. Sometimes talking at each other, sometimes changing form entirely. Sometimes nude, sometimes saying Fuckity fuck fuck for no reason at all. And because of the total sparseness of anything of a provocative nature allowed on the boards at that time, many of the grad students began begging to stage my work. Because I was an unofficial playwriting student, it helped convince the department heads that these filthy excercizes would actually kill two birds with one stone, and therefore, some of them saw the light of day.
By my senior year, 7 of my one act plays had been produced, and for the only times in those four years at USM (Hattiesburg, MS) there were 6 breasts, one cock (mine), a gay kiss, and a graphic rape all happening under the lights. And I was quite proud, having single-handedly invented Absurdist Theater!
Of course I had not. Not at all. But I had not yet been exposed to Beckett, Genet, Adamov, Ionesco, even the later-day Americans, Albee and Guare. And when I finally was enmeshed in these great works (of the fucking 1950ís!) I realized I had invented nothing. That all of my ideas had been well tested years before, with much greater success, and at that point were considered quaint, or even passť. Completely discouraged, I devoted myself whole-heartedly to my first novel!
The book, Salisburg was a sarcastic, but emotional, philosophical piece (since, who doesnít want to hear how the world works from a naÔve, sheltered 21-year-old!) that jumped from the realistic to the fantastic. Written in short chapters, and even sparser sentences, the book was finished quickly and passed off to the coolest girl Iíd ever met, Julie the Goddess Oídell, who read it, and handed it back to me with a copy of Slaughterhouse 5. My book looked like a project whoís intent had been to water down and spoof Vonnegut-so similar at times it was almost like a Mad Magazine parody. Oh it wasnít as well written, far from it, and not nearly as wise, but it was the same voice. A voice that Vonnegut had covered. A voice that was redundant and unnecessary.
I would go on to invent Henry Miller, William Burroughs, and even Joyce before I had the good sense to read all of these fellows. And even though it was one colossal disappointment after another, it did give me a reading list that kept me engaged and excited for years.
My favorite Vonnegut, bar none, is Breakfast of Champions. After his first few, more specifically sci-fi books and stories, Mr. V began a series of five perfect short novels, that I always think of as brother of the 5 great Bowie or Dylan records. They are: Mother Night, Catís Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse 5, and BreakfastÖ They synched perfectly with my forming world view and lauded, heroically niceness which was a quality Iíd had, and was at that point trying to tamp down, in hopes of becoming tough and cool which is what the girls wanted to fuck and the boys wanted to be. But there was a courageousness in his intellect and his kindness which was radical to the point of anarchy in those waning days of the 1980ís. The timing was perfect.
His 70ís novels are equally good, and though formulaic (and the antithesis of it somehow), as I plowed thorough his cannon, I found that even though I was constantly reassured and entertained by him, that at a certain point, he had nothing left to teach me. I had absorbed it all. Iíve gone back to him several times in my adulthood and burgeoning middle-age, and find that I canít. It doesnít stick for some reason. The books feel a little glib, and dare I say, obvious, which again, at the time of my initial readings of them, they were the antithesis of predictable.
I miss Vonnegut as a constant companion, like he was in those early years. Like a friend who taught you everything, and who you will never love any less-though as time marches on their company is less electrifying than it once was-in some resepcts, no author will ever mean as much to me as he did, when he did. Po-te-weet.