Trout Sells Out

or Don't Read and Drive

by Erik the Cool Cricket

This is a national tragedy, of course--that we've changed from a society to an audience.
--Kurt Vonnegut

Twice within an hour, I see the writer Kurt Vonnegut sign with impeccably doodled caricature a first edition of Slaughterhouse-Five for the driver of a new Nissan something-or-other. This televised advertisement throws me off a cliff the first time, and its second airing, like a tow-truck winch, hoists me back up full of dents and questions.

Am I to assume that the apparently affluent yuppie who zigzags his mechanized conveyance from one independent bookstore to another across the mossy Northwest has not heard of the Internet? And am I sad or am I happy to see K.V. (formerly Jr.) tossing Breakfast of Champions (his deranged tome of anti-auto and anti-spending leanings) out the proverbial passenger-side window as he materializes in a commercial for a car?

Truly I should be happy that the pop world of advertising has chosen to give kudos to the genius that--in these days of adults memorizing Harry Potter--so few recognize. And the book the ad features is, of course, unflinchingly anti-war. If some curious watcher of FOX on Sunday nixes Nissan and instead picks up a copy of this masterwork and learns its message from Billy Pilgrim, would the world improve a notch?

I suspect bombs will still vivisect Iraq, yet this audacious commercial proves downright puzzling. I know for one thing that firsts of Slaughterhouse-Five (subtitled The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death) do not sit on shelves like dog-eared Agatha Christie paperbacks. A bookshop lucky enough to have this particular title would hide it behind glass, a price of roughly $1,500 penciled (lightly) onto the half-title page, and even then the proprietor might not sell it to some schlub walking in from the rain.

In fact, at a book fair last fall I asked about a signed S-5 locked inside a fortress-like cabinet. A middling, price-clipped copy, the spine browned and the pages dotted like the freckles on an old man's forehead, it was available for exactly two grand. One can find this book, rarely, at dealer sites on the Web, and I have seen second printings go for enough cash to buy a lifetime's supply of Jane Smiley on eBay. And yet, here is the Nissan driver yanking a beautiful edition from the shelf and churning up within me so much jealousy that I am flattened like road kill by the time the author appears and flaunts his expertise with a Sharpie.

Yes, and upon further deconstruction I ponder that on Veterans' Day (ne´ Armistice Day) of 2002, the city of New York celebrated "Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Day" (sanctioned by the Republican Mayor) when the liberal Indianapolis native turned 80. Having survived the fires of Dresden back in WWII and his own brownstone during the Super Bowl a few years ago, this giant of American literature is now 16 inches high on my Zenith and signing somebody else's book.

I would call absurd my attempts to fathom the conjunction of what and whatnot that must have occurred at Nissan. Like the narrator of Mother Night, does the ad man's conscience squirm in the light of day? And I would also call into question my equally absurd emotional reaction--except that I learned from Vonnegut that absurdity is the relentless way of humankind. Confound it, we do spend our money on cars that burn the oil of OPEC and we do buy anti-war books for the price of a pre-owned car (at least a Yugo). Dwayne Hoover, the addled used-vehicle salesman in Breakfast of Champions (subtitled Goodbye Blue Monday) sells Pontiacs and in his spiraling delirium begins to believe that the fiction of Vonnegut's alter ego, Kilgore Trout, is actually the truth.

Fiction is truth? That is a startling concept to consider, and it confounds the twisted wreckage of my mind--the mind that has crashed head on with the reality of Kurt Vonnegut hawking automobiles (and literature) during prime time. Of course, this is a man whose screen prints of assholes sell for 500 bucks, when all he has drawn is:


But it is also the man who wrote: "Everywhere were the shells of the great beetles which men had made and worshipped. They were automobiles. They had killed everything."

In a Playboy interview reprinted in his collection Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, Vonnegut says, "What passes for a culture in my head is really a bunch of commercials, and this is intolerable. It may be impossible to live without a culture." The misappropriation of cultural icons for corporate profit goes on, and they've snagged a good one this time.

c. January, 2003 The Cool Cricket Company (tm)