For those of us who write books, our souls leap when we witness others gush over the love of a book, any book. We're reminded of how books can swim in the synapses of people, and we may flash on our own favorite tomes. In this morning's Los Angeles Times, book editor David Ulin writes about rediscovering Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, which is a touchstone book for me.
To explain, I have to dive back to 1971. I was riding my bike to my grandmother's house in her suburban Minneapolis neighborhood called Maplewoods. I came upon giant semi-vans parked half on the road half on her lawn, and thick black electrical cables ran from a small truck-sized generator down the street toward the lake. Maplewoods edged Lake Minnetonka near Wayzata, and Maplewoods' roads were so narrow, I wondered how a single semi made it through the curvy shaded lanes, let alone a half dozen of them. And what were those cables for?
I ran into my grandmother's house and found her upstairs in her bedroom. "Ma!" I said eagerly dashing in. "What are all those trucks doing on your property?"
"Isn't that something?" she said, going to her desk and picking up a paperback book. She handed me Slaughterhouse Five. It had the subtitle The Children's Crusade.
"What?" I said, holding the book.
"They're filming it next door at the Snyders. They're making a Hollywood movie."
"They" turned out to be director George Roy Hill, who had previously directed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and he'd graduated from Blake School, my small all-boys high school. He was there using many of his old high school friends in the film. His buddy John Snyder's house was to be the home of the main character, Billy Pilgrim.
"Want to go watch?"
Absolutely I did, and I called home to have my brother Laur pedal over as fast as he could. After he arrived, we walked over to see a hive of people surround the area near the Snyders' front door. A monster camera on what looked to be a mini-railroad car on tracks had two men ready to dolly back the camera. Even though it was daytime, giant lights on stands pointed at the front door, and all those cables snaking down the street, driveway, and large lawn powered those lights. A local newspaper snapped a shot of my grandmother, brother, and me looking on.
What I saw next looked fakey. A plump woman named Valencia Pilgrim (Sharon Gans) came out of the front door and appeared incredibly surprised to see a new Cadillac in the driveway, and she thanked her husband Billy (Michael Sacks) over and over. They shot the scene a few times before shooting another one in the side yard. I left thinking it all looked stupid and I had no interest in the book.
Flash forward nine months. The world premiere of the film was at the Cinerama theatre on Highway 12, and the proceeds for the opening were for my high school. I attended, and I was blown away. The way the story jumped back and forth in time, from World War II Germany, to suburbia in the sixties, to the planet Tralfamadore and all around stunned me. Valerie Perrine as Montana Wildhack was sexy. I had to read the book.
Flash forward another three years. I'm in Denmark on my junior year abroad, having moved heaven and earth to get into a study-abroad program. The summer before I'd been at party not far from the Snyders' house when I'd accidentally stepped on the toes of a young Danish woman. It turned out she was the exchange student at my high school that had only just gone coed. We ended up dating a lot before she returned to Denmark.
I arrived in Denmark ostensibly to live with her as she went to college, but upon landing, I learned she was living with another man. I was more than flummoxed. I was destroyed. And where was I to live? With her parents, she said. When school started for me, then I'd live with another family.
Within the week, I found myself at a party with Danes my age, but I was too depressed to really chat with anyone. In the bathroom I found a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five, the very book my grandmother showed me and which I'd never read. I picked it up. It was in English, not Danish, and I started reading it. It was fabulous.
The host said I could borrow it. I found much solace in the book. Perhaps because Vonnegut was showing an absurd universe, I could relate. My being in Denmark was absurd. I felt as alone and isolated as Billy Pilgrim after he survived the firebombing of Dresden. As Ulin describes the book in today's paper, "It's of the absurdity of humankind. Soldiers are children, sent to fight by ‘glamorous, war-loving dirty old men.'"
After Billy returned from the war, his main problem was, "Where had he come from and where would he go now?" That was me.
After I read the book, the book's owner offered everything she had by Vonnegut, and I read them all. I went to the local library and read even more books by other authors including Of Human Bondage and For Whom the Bell Tolls. I came out of my depression, classes started, and my time in Denmark turned out to be a peak experience. I wouldn't have changed it for anything.
Now that I'm older, I feel like Billy Pilgrim all the time. I may whisk in my mind to, say, to my first day at University of Denver, meeting my roommate from Long Island. Then I'm driving my daughter today to her second day of seventh grade, experiencing that. As as I write this, I'm remembering a lot of moments in Denmark.
I don't have many things from my grandmother, who died in 1983, but I do have her copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. A book couldn't be more special.
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