Episode 58: Rest well Kilgore Trout

In this week’s episode we say goodbye to Kurt Vonnegut.  So it goes.

The Last Chance Democracy Cafe
Episode 58: Rest well Kilgore Trout
by Steven C. Day

“Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”

Kurt Vonnegut (But then who else would it be?)

Kilgore Trout is dead at last.  It must be a relief to him.  Being the principal character growing out of the mind of Kurt Vonnegut must have been exhausting work.

I received the news of Vonnegut’s passing — and I say this as an act of confession — with one part sadness and one part envy.  The envy wasn’t for the dying, of course: Why be jealous for a jewel you’re certain to receive yourself one day soon?  No, the jealously was for his life — or maybe for the immortality that life engendered.

When you’ve just turned 52 — happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me — the idea of immortality of any sort takes on a significance notably lacking when you turn, say, 25.

There have been many times in my life when I’ve wanted to be Kurt Vonnegut, or more accurately, part of Kurt Vonnegut.  I didn’t want the part where his mother committed suicide, of course, or where his beloved sister died young or even the part where he lived through being a prisoner of war and the firebombing of Dresden.

No, it was the successful writer part of Kurt Vonnegut I wanted to be.

Like at least 50 percent of all of the men, women and children who have ever roamed this increasingly warm planet, part of me has always wanted to be a writer.  And not just any sort of writer — a writer of great fiction.  And I will admit to a certain sense of awe for those who have managed to do it both successfully and well. 

Kilgore Trout was, of course, not one of those people.  His work was depressingly unpopular.  In fact, the only place he was routinely published was in pornography, where his work was used to provide some “redeeming social importance,” in the hope of avoiding prosecution under obscenity laws.  Vonnegut considered Trout’s lack of popularity unsurprising: ”His prose was frightful. Only his ideas were good.”

Yet, in the end, when, in Breakfast of Champions, Trout had the opportunity to confront his creator, he didn’t ask to be given better writing skills.  He had something else in mind.

Here was what Kilgore Trout cried out to me in my father’s voice: “Make me young, make me young, make me young!”

(Kurt Vonnegut — Last line of the book Breakfast of Champions (1973))

*  *  *

Vonnegut entered my life when I was 19-years-old.  Once hooked, I consumed pretty much everything he’d ever written in one helping — book after book after book.  The satire, the liberal outlook, the fundamental decency of his leading characters and even the science fiction quality that played such a big role in the reluctance of “serious” critics to take his work seriously — they all appealed to me immensely.

But then how could any political liberal not love Kurt Vonnegut?

I was taught in the sixth grade that we had a standing army of just over a hundred thousand men and that the generals had nothing to say about what was done in Washington. I was taught to be proud of that and to pity Europe for having more than a million men under arms and spending all their money on airplanes and tanks. I simply never unlearned junior civics. I still believe in it. I got a very good grade.

(Kurt Vonnegut quoted by James Lundquist in Kurt Vonnegut (1971)

*  *  *

To be clear, though, my initial desire to be a successful writer predated exposure to Vonnegut.  Here, in fact, was one of my earliest literary efforts (written when I was somewhere in the middle of my grade school years):

When I went fishing
The waves were swishing.
I threw out my hook
While my father read a book.

I felt a great tug
Much too big for a bug.
I yelled get the pail
I’ve got me a whale!

Clearly, I was destined for greatness. 

Admittedly, this childhood poem has a fairly tangential connection to the subject of Vonnegut’s death, but back when I was a grade-schooler I really, really wanted to see it published.  And so now at last it has been.

I’ve had to give up so many of my childhood dreams: would you deny me this one as well?

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.

(Kurt Vonnegut — Mother Night (1961))

Besides, I am confident that Vonnegut himself would have had no difficulty in seeing the connection between his passing and my long ago poem.  He had that sort of mind.

Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty-three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules — and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress.

(Kurt Vonnegut — The Sirens of Titan (1959))

Speaking still of my own writing, such as it was (and is), in junior high school I came to the attention of a young English teacher — an extremely interesting woman, actually.  She had large frizzy blonde hair, large breasts, a pleasant though far from beautiful face and long, long legs always prominently displayed in a miniskirt.  She was also a dedicated feminist at a time when the modern women’s rights movement was only first beginning to emerge from the shadows of the antiwar and civil rights movements.

She believed in flying saucers, Bigfoot, reincarnation and ghosts (she conceded there might be a certain inconsistency between the last two, but it didn’t seem to bother her).

Like I said — an extremely interesting woman.  She was also kind to her students.  Vonnegut would have approved.

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’

(Kurt Vonnegut — God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965))

She (the long legged teacher) was the first educator ever to tell me that I had potential as a writer, enough potential, she thought, that I ought to try to do something with it.  She actually went to the effort of researching my class schedule, advising that by changing gym classes I could arrange things so as to transfer from her general English class into her friend’s creative writing class.  There, I would have more time for serious writing.

I wasn’t enthusiastic.  For one thing, the creative writing teacher seemed a bit stern to me — not to mention strikingly deficient in the long legged, big breasted department (give me a break, I was in junior high, for criminy’s sake).  Besides, no one was beating me up or otherwise terrorizing me in my current gym class.  Why tempt fate?

I let the matter drop.

*  *  *

Here’s an interesting fun fact about the state of American culture: at 9:54 on Tuesday morning, April 17, 2007 the name “Kurt Vonnegut” returned 16,000,000 hits on Google.  Britney Spears scored 16,100,000.  I actually find this encouraging.  I wouldn’t have expected it to be that close.

Kilgore Trout, by the way, came in at a very respectable 272,000.  I hope he’ll find some comfort in this.

*  *  *

That small betrayal in junior high was pretty much the end of my writing until Vonnegut entered my life.  Reading his books got me started again, a little anyway.  But for years afterwards virtually every word I wrote was a cheap, if unconscious, attempt to copy him.  That’s probably part of the reason I always ended up tearing up whatever it was I was writing and storming out of the room.

It’s like the advice someone famous, I don’t remember who, recently gave to contestants on American Idol: If you can possibly avoid it, this person said, don’t sing something Barbara Streisand made famous.  There’s no way you’ll live up to the comparison.

It was only when I was much older and had stopped trying to write like Vonnegut that I reached the point where I could even begin to stomach my own work.

Is it possible that seemingly incredible geniuses like Bach and Shakespeare and Einstein were not in fact superhuman, but simply plagiarists, copying great stuff from the future?

(Kurt Vonnegut — A Man Without a Country (2005))

Still, his voice was always inside me somewhere.  And God, what a voice:

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.

So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.

What else is sacred? Oh, Romeo and Juliet, for instance.

And all music is.

(Kurt Vonnegut Breakfast of Champions (1973))

*  *  *

I have been more than passably lucky in my life.  I have never known want.  I got a good education, became a reasonably successful professional and, yes, not only opened The Last Chance Democracy Cafe, but have also managed to keep it out of receivership for several years — if barely.  And I have been blessed in many ways in my personal life.

Yet that slight sense of regret for my life’s literary shortcomings still stalks me.  I think it will stalk me all the way to the grave.

Kilgore Trout suffered his share of disappointments too, of course, in his various incarnations.  Still, for the most part he remained courteous.  I suppose I should try to do the same.

*  *  * 

By his later years, Vonnegut probably had, as most critics insisted at the time, left behind his best work.  But the spark was still there until the day he died, and he never stopped speaking out:

So let’s give another big tax cut to the super-rich. That’ll teach bin Laden a lesson he won’t soon forget.

Here’s what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial, about to face cold turkey. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we’re hooked on.

(Kurt Vonnegut — two quotations from an essay, Cold Turkey, at In These Times (2004))

In case you haven’t noticed, we are now almost as feared and hated all over the world as the Nazis were.

Shrapnel was invented by an Englishman of the same name. Don’t you wish you could have something named after you?

My last words? “Life is no way to treat an animal, not even a mouse.”

(Kurt Vonnegut — three quotations from an essay, I Love You, Madame Librarian, at In These Times (2004))

And just one more . . .


The crucified planet Earth,
should it find a voice
and a sense of irony,
might now well say
of our abuse of it,
“Forgive them, Father,
They know not what they do.”

The irony would be
that we know what
we are doing.

When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
“It is done.”
People did not like it here.

(Kurt Vonnegut — A Man Without a Country (2005))

*  *  *

We held a wake for Vonnegut at The Last Chance Democracy Café.  As I described in episode 27, we often do this when a prominent liberal dies.  We come together to celebrate a life well spent. 

Many people had many things to say at this one, but we gave Vonnegut himself the last word.  Horace read these words from Slaughterhouse-Five:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes.”

Then Winston made the only toast that could even conceivably have been appropriate to the event.

He held his glass up high.  “So it goes.”

“So it goes,” came the chorus in response.

Postscript: This episode had already largely been written when news of the Virginia Tech shootings broke.  Given the dimension of that tragedy, it may seem that the death of one 84-year-old writer hardly merits this much attention.

But don’t you wish we still had Kurt Vonnegut to help us, at least a little, in trying to understand? 

*  *  *

Acknowledgment: Most of the quotations above were taken from Wikiquote, although I knew most of them before looking.

*  *  *

Check out our episodes archive.

*  *  *

When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 27 years. Contact Steven at .

© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001

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14 Responses to “Episode 58: Rest well Kilgore Trout”

  1. billii Says:

    The really sad part is that we are now 1 year and 9 days since Episode 27 and the same shit is going on with our “liar in Chief”. Deaths have tripled and we are “surging to victory”. Horse Shit! My own son has now been medically discharged from the Air Force because of injuries received in Afganistan and the killing never ends. I find it really interesting that I am a 62 year old attorney in the bible belt of west Texas, a liberal educated at a very conservative school (SMU) where now they want to enshire the Bush library with a politcal think tank that generates lies and death for more American and the world just keeps moving on.

    How stupid can people continue to be?

    Wm. J. McGowan, II

  2. hizzhoner Says:

    Here’s what I posted on my blog…it’s still relevant:

    I read every one of his short stories, I marvelled over Slaughter House Five and Breakfast of Champions. Once, when my son was young, we watched the movie version of Slaughter House Five on television together. My son was fascinated. We discussed what we saw and then I got the book off of the shelf and read passages to him. On Thursday morning, my son called and said he was saddened by the news of Vonnegut’s death. Hmmmm….Vonnegut will be remembered by at least one more generation. I suppose that’s as good as it gets.

    “So it goes.”


  3. Larry the Red Says:

    billii asks, “How stupid can people continue to be?”

    In one (or maybe more) of the essays collected in A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut explaied why he, like Twain and Einstein, had given up on the human race in general and the USA in particular. As I understand him, he thought its’s not so much a question of stupidity as it is some combination of stupidity and apathy and selfishness and arrogance and maybe even despair and a sense of hopelessness. Yet to the end he exhorted us to be kind to each other and to ourselves, to really take the Sermon on the Mount to heart and live it. He also told us that the point of life was to fart around, to revel in the redeeming power of music, to make art, no matter how bad others, or even yourself, might juge it to be, because the very act of creating makes the world a better place. He contained multitudes, as the saying goes.

  4. Larry the Red Says:

    I should have said powerlessness instead of hopelessness.

  5. Larry the Red Says:

    Here’s a question for Winston. Who are our heroes now? in recent years, we’ve lost so many, from John Kenneth Galbraith to Paul Wellstone to Molly Ivins and now Kurt Vonnegut. I have my own thoughts on this, but I’d like to know yours, and those of the rest of the Cafe regulars, too.

  6. Chuck Says:

    E.O Wilson for one, I think Solzhenitsyn is still alive too. There is also Stephan Hawking, Lewis H. Lapham, Cormac McCarthy (A little dark, but a thinker,) Garrett Hardin; and I will think of a few others right after I hit the send button.

    But jeez I’ll miss Molly!

  7. Chuck Says:

    Isn’t Studs Terkel still alive?

  8. RJHall Says:

    My heroes were Isaac Asimov (died 15 years ago earlier this month, now how come nobody marked THAT anniversary?) and Carl Sagan (died 1996). The world has been a much emptier place since then! I always think of a note in Richard D. Parker’s wonderful little book “Here the People Rule”, which had a picture on the cover taken from Robert Kennedy’s funeral train in 1968 showing the huge number of grieving mourning people that lined the funeral train. In a note on that photo, Parker said something like now that the people’s hero was lost, the people were on their own to speak and work for themselves rather than relying on somebody else, like they should have been anyway. Interesting and thought-provoking note (and book)! (Parker was not of course denying that RFK was a hero or saying it was good he was dead or anything! He, or at least his book, was celebrating people’s power to speak and act for themselves, and Parker seemed to be a liberal (even progressive or radical) who liked people like RFK.)

  9. MikeH Says:

    I would definitely consider the Swiss psychotherapist and writer, Alice Miller, to be as much a hero(ine) as just about anybody else one might name.

    In her books and on her web sites she speaks out against the almost universal acceptance of mistreatment and humiliation of children, what she calls “poisonous pedagogy”, as being something harmless and without serious consequences.

    In particular she challenges the duty to always “honor one’s father and mother”, one of the “Ten Commandments” often attributed to God, and the resulting obligation to forgive one’s parents and absolve them of any blame and always speak well of them, regardless of how abusive or neglectful they might have been.

    Her web sites are at:

    http://www.alice-miller.com and


    One of her early books (written in the early 1980’s) is titled For Your Own Good (a phrase I heard many, many times from my father), and her entire book is now online here:


    In her first chapter she has quotes from some of the childrearing manuals of previous centuries, including those used in Germany in the late 1800’s, right at the time Hitler was born.

    She has one entire chapter on Adolf Hitler and the kind of childhood he had, and she also talks about other Nazi officials, and how they were influenced by their upbringing.

    She has written a number of other books since For Your Own Good.

    She was born in 1923 and is still very much alive, and answers e-mail from readers on her web site. Her latest book, The Body Never Lies, came out in 2005.

  10. richl Says:

    I don’t see Garry Trudeau, Aaron McGruder or Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Granted to some they are not on the level of Hawking or E.O. Wilson (What the hell is Myrmecology? If you’re talkin about ants say so for gods sake.) but to others of us they are far more understandable. The thing is some of us grunts that don’t know a black whole in space from a West Virginia coal mine can understand them and the issues they speak to.

  11. Michael Steven Says:

    In junior high, I used to make my ice cream
    money, by writing book reports for my fellow
    students in English class. I would fabricate the
    title, author and even the publisher. I made up
    plots, characters the ‘Whole Montana’. Every
    thing went fine until my customers would
    lament: “I got a B+, but Mrs. Cummings
    (the teacher) said she would like to read the
    book herself; said it was very, very interesting.”
    So, after that dozens of my works were ‘left on
    the bus, eaten by the family dog, or ‘My mom
    gave it to somebody at work’ until I couldn’t
    juggle the truth anymore and got out of the
    business; All that ice cream wasn’t good for
    my cavities anyway.

  12. Chuck Says:


    Don’t give up!!

  13. MikeH Says:

    Chuck, which Mike are you speaking to? Me or Michael Steven?

  14. FreeDem Says:

    One of the most valuable books in my library is a December 1974 Fantasy and Scientific Magazine with the Cover story “Venus on the Half Shell” by Kilgore Trout. The humor is pure Vonnegut, but in no place or time did I see that he admitted to it, nor did I ever see another actual story, as opposed to his many references to them.

    Like many I discovered his books when they were “underground” literature, sneered at by “Official” critics (the very idea of introducing science fiction into a novel, just made the whole thing suspect)

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