Saving Kurt Vonnegut

During my UCSD days, I’d rubbed elbows with visiting writers by assisting the University Events Office with airport pickup. I got a pep talk from Kurt Vonnegut on our drive back to Lindbergh Field, one where he told me that I reminded him of John Irving, his former student. Vonnegut said he saw me making it as a writer. A few novelists possess the rare gift of peering into the future and seeing things we Ordinary Joes can’t make out.

“You’re loose, Kirby,” he said, “and that’s a good thing. John was loose too.”

Did Vonnegut mean I seemed relaxed and spontaneous? He hadn’t read a single word I’d written. And what did he mean by “loose?” Maybe he’d observed my joie de vivre after I announced I was going for a dip in his pool after checking him into the swanky La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla. I’d swan-dived into the deep end, surfaced, and watched Vonnegut circle the pool wringing his hands. After about ten circles, he’d flopped down on a lounge chair, lit a Pall Mall, and blew smoke through his nose.

He had reminded me of a trial attorney about to present his case to the jury and I suggested we buy a few rounds of Black Russians before sunset. His sold-out “So You Want To Be a Writer” talk had been scheduled for seven sharp at the gym and I figured a little booze might relax him. It did.

Vonnegut was as cool as ice on stage behind the podium. He’d avoided an attack of his dreaded Flop Sweat that occasionally derailed him at speaking engagements. His talk was inspiring. I wanted to be a writer more than ever and I think he inspired a lot of those in attendance they could succeed as writers. He answered questions thoughtfully. His jokes sent waves of laughter through the sea of fans. The only glitch came after he was finished, when the adoring crowd swelled up and swept toward the stage for signatures.

They pushed and pushed. Hands waved copies of Slaughterhouse-Five, Palm Sunday, and Cat’s Cradle. The pushing continued until all those bodies pressed in and pinned Vonnegut against the second-floor railing. I knew a few more pushes would shove him over that railing and down two floors to the blacktop. I picked out the six biggest guys I could find wearing yellow Crowd Control shirts and had them form a protective half-circle between him and the front line.

“Push!” I told them. We had enough muscle to move the mob back a few feet. I saw an opening and grabbed Vonnegut’s forearm. I snuck him through a corridor, out an open door, and we scrambled down two flights of steps. We were alone in the night air and I was breathing hard. So was Vonnegut. We were like teammates who’d somehow snuck through a hoard of would-be tacklers to reach the end zone.

“Let’s get whiskey, brother,” he told me.

“I know just the place,” I said.

Kirby Michael Wright ’83 is a writer in Hawaii. His books include the coming-of-age island novel Punahou Blues and The Queen of Molokai, based on the life of his paniolo grandmother.