Paul Greenberg

A guard would go to the head of the stairs every so often to see what it was like outside, then he would come down and whisper to the other guards. There was a firestorm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.

It wasn't safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.

So it goes.

--Kurt Vonnegut, "Slaughterhouse-Five"

There was a darkness at the center of Kurt Vonnegut's life, or at least his art, that would have made Vincent van Gogh's troubles seem light and airy. Van Gogh exorcised his demons by lighting up the starry night, painting a room forever blue in our memory, carving color into canvas and into the minds of succeeding generations, shedding light and joy and sheer amazement at the sight of the world to this day. Kurt Vonnegut responded differently. His became the voice of a scarred generation, a master of bitter satire. So it goes.

At the outside, Vonnegut's prospects would have seemed bright indeed in the Indianapolis of the early 1920s. His father was an architect, his mother an heiress. But you never know what goes on inside others' walls, physical and mental.

The Depression, the Great one, left his father without steady work. Nothing was being built. The foundations of this ever-buoyant, ever-optimistic, ever-new America were shifting, sinking, crashing.

His mother's moods became more than moods. Young Kurt saw it all and felt it all. "When my mother went off her rocker late at night," he would remember, "the hatred and contempt she sprayed on my father, as gentle and innocent a man as ever lived, was without limit and pure, untainted by ideas or information." The poor, tormented woman would commit suicide. So it goes.

Her son would never get over it - her fear and despair and his own fear of both. His struggle to deal with all that would shape his voice, and make his books and novels and essays the voice of so many others who felt outside an ever-buoyant, ever-optimistic, ever-new America that, to them, was nothing but an ever-old fraud. And his pop art would flourish, like some dark inner growth, whenever America didn't. So it went.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.