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Almond on Vonnegut

January 25, 2008
I’m a bit shamed to admit it, but when I picked up Steve Almond’s recent collection of essays "(Not that You Asked)" I cringed a little when I saw that the first substantial one focused on the author’s literary hero, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

That’s not because I’m anti-Vonnegut—like just about anyone else who grew up circa 1965-1990, I spent my formative years enamored with the curmudgeon’s writing. After reading Vonnegut, every other serious writer just seemed to be working too hard. Why can’t they be as simple, precise and clear as this guy, I wondered.

Eventually, though, that feeling backfired. Vonnegut’s star diminished as I (erroneously) concluded that I had simply overrated him. It didn’t help that his novels started to blur together, leading me to further believe that Vonnegut was just a one-trick pony. He nailed the elusive great-American novel with "Slaughterhouse-Five," I figured, and everything after that was just treading the same literary water.

And so when the city celebrated Vonnegut last year, I didn’t engage in the festivities. Been there. Read that. Moved on.

So I resisted Almond’s essay.

For a very short while.

Because Steve Almond’s writing is difficult to resist. As anyone who saw his reading a few years back at the Harrison Center (part of the hey-what-happened-to-that Indy Underground series) can attest, this is one disarming guy.

The author of the bestselling book "Candyfreak" and the collaborative novel "Which Brings Me to You," Almond is funny and smart and introspective without being pretentious. He’s also fairly filthy, which can both scare and attract readers.

And once I caved and started reading his "Why I Crush on Vonnegut" essay, it quickly became clear that he was bringing to matters Vonnegut exactly what I’ve needed: A bright, engaging point of view that completely understands why I’ve strayed from the cult of Kurt. And why I loved his books to begin with.

The long essay chronicles Almond’s feeble attempts to meet his idol and his lightning read through the Vonnegut archives at IU. In the end, it draws some interesting conclusions about the man and his work.

It’s an eye-opener that I wish I read it before the city’s Year of Vonnegut.

Perhaps if I did, I would have been more engaged. And I could have acknowledged how great an influence Vonnegut's books had on me.

(By the way, Almond’s collection also contains probably the best essay ever written on how to write sex scenes. But that’s another matter.)

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