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Vonnegut, on politics, presidents and librarians

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NEW YORK -- Kurt Vonnegut opens an interview at La Mediterranee, a pretty Manhattan restaurant, this way:

"What do you want to talk about? Politics? Our president is a complete twit. I'll talk about the death of the novel. I'll talk about anything you want."

And so it goes.

For all those who have lived with Vonnegut in their imaginations -- with the listless soldier Billy Pilgrim in 1969's Slaughterhouse-Five, with the religious Bokononists whispering "busy, busy, busy" in 1963's Cat's Cradle -- this is what he is like in person.

Polite, courtly even. He has thick, light brownish hair. He was born left-handed but taught, as they did back in the day, to write with his right. He says Law & Order on TV is "absolutely first-rate" -- as long as the episode has Sam Waterston or Jerry Orbach in it.

And at 82, this hero of the left is as unafraid as ever to speak out.

His new book is A Man Without a Country (Seven Stories Press, $23.95; edited by Daniel Simon). It is part commentary (some material was written for the left-leaning magazine In These Times), part memoir and all Vonnegut writing about our world today.

And what kind of planet do we have?

Well, he says, we are making "thermodynamic whoopee with atomic energy and fossil fuel." The part that makes him feel unfunny for the rest of his life: People don't "give a damn whether the planet goes on or not." We are, he writes, too cheap and lazy.

In short: "Human beings, past and present, have trashed the joint."

There is more where that came from.

The guessers (never filled with doubts) are in charge, wise people are despised, and the USA is now operating on the snake-oil standard, he writes.

Yes, and more.

From his perspective as a former World War II prisoner of war, Vonnegut writes that American soldiers in the Middle East are "being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas."

Then, beyond all the gloom and doom, there are things to cling to.

Music (especially the blues) cheers him, as do people who behave decently. Librarians, too -- "not famous for their physical strength" -- who resist having books removed from shelves and refuse to give names of people who have checked out certain books in the era of the Patriot Act.

"The America I loved," he writes, "still exists in the front desks of public libraries."

Within recent weeks, he has been on Real Time with Bill Maher and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Said Stewart, introducing him: "As an adolescent, (Vonnegut) made my life bearable."

No one can doubt Vonnegut's staying power. Seven Stories Press has gone back to print four times for 190,000 copies of A Man Without a Country. He has written 25 books, among them some of the best-loved in American literature. During the past three months, he was in the top 50 most-popular authors in North America searched on, an umbrella website for used books.

Vonnegut grew up in the Midwest during the Great Depression. He came from a family of three; his older brother, Bernard, was a highly respected physical chemist who worked on cloud seeding.

Vonnegut learned how jokes work, he writes, from top comedians on the radio. He went to Cornell for three years, studying chemistry, and did graduate work in anthropology at the University of Chicago.

He helped raise seven children: three from his first marriage; three adopted when his sister, Alice, and her husband died; and another adopted in his second marriage.

He joined the Army in World War II, was captured by the Germans and experienced the Allied bombing of Dresden, the inspiration for Slaughterhouse-Five.

His thoughts about gasoline dependency came early in life. He was born Nov. 11, 1922, in Indianapolis -- home to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, established in 1911. "When I got here in 1922, this country was already roaring drunk on petroleum," he says. "We are still roaring drunk on petroleum."

At La Mediterranee, Vonnegut brings with him a November 1972 Harper's article he wrote about the Republican presidential nomination in Miami of Richard Nixon when the country was fighting the Vietnam War.

"Read the piece written 33 years ago," he says. Nothing has changed: The country is still "divided between winners and losers. The government is Democratic and Republican, but look, in this last election, they had to choose between two members of Skull and Bones (John Kerry and George Bush's fraternity at Yale) out of 300 million people or however many people we are."

"I was lucky enough to live under one truly humane president: FDR," he says. "He gave the common people enough influence by strengthening the labor unions.

"Automation has made labor worthless, so the losers are in awful trouble, and have no power whatsoever. They used to be able to withhold labor."

But then again there is the humanistic Vonnegut, honorary president of the Humanist Association: In A Man Without a Country, he repeats something his Uncle Alex used to say when they were sitting under an apple tree, chatting and drinking lemonade.

"Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"

It is a saying he now carries around with him, and he urges everyone to "please notice when you are happy."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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