‘The good writers touch life often’Published 7:39am Sunday, April 1, 2012
Column: Pass the Hot Dish, by Alexandra Kloster
Twice this week I experienced a transcendental moment with two of my favorite authors. Transcendental may be too strong a word, but when your activities are limited to reading, watching television and the occasional trip to the doctor, mundane becomes novel and fairly interesting becomes truly transcendental.
The first came when I won Final Jeopardy — the final clue on the “Jeopardy!” game show — on Tuesday. The clue was ‘“Books leapt and danced like roasted birds, their wings ablaze with red and yellow feathers’ is a line from this novel.”
I did my Final Jeopardy dance, which runs the gamut of emotions from ecstasy to despondency in about 2.6 seconds. There’s a lot of arm waving and gasping while I struggle to get out the words, “I know it, Alex! What is ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by the brilliant Ray Bradbury? Take that you metallurgist from Scranton, you retired merchant marine from Miami, and you too, you part time philatelist from Tulsa! Now give me my prize!”
Then I realize I’m alone. There is no prize, nor is there anyone for me to impress but my dogs, and they’re not feeling it. Winning Final Jeopardy by yourself is akin to flipping an egg without cracking the yolk for the first time and having no one around to declare you the next Julia Child.
With my game show glory fading, I grabbed my Kindle, and that’s when the next moment hit. Right there in my recommendations was a new story from the late, great Mark Harvey. Who?
In the late 1940s, young Mark Harvey was trying to break into the slicks, magazines that were printed on better quality paper as opposed to the pulps, which weren’t. For a novice writer there was a lot of cachet attached to appearing in the slicks, and Mark Harvey was going for it with a story called “Basic Training.”
Harvey never found an audience for “Basic Training,” but he did hit it big later in life with books like “Cat’s Cradle” and “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Yep, you guessed it. Mark Harvey was the short-lived pseudonym of Mr. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
I felt like Charlie holding his precious golden ticket to the chocolate factory. For $2 I could dive back into a mind that I didn’t think we’d ever hear from again, but should I? What I didn’t realize yet was that the mind was all Mark Harvey and very little Kurt Vonnegut.
When it comes to the posthumous release of a writer’s work, my feelings are mixed. Often that work is substandard in comparison with the writing the author approved and championed while still alive. The writer isn’t around to embrace it, defend it or dismiss it, and I don’t think that’s fair. Yet, my curiosity found a birth where my conscience couldn’t, and I dug into “Basic Training,” which it turns out, is a mile wide but not very deep.
The plot is part romance, part coming-of-age story and part shootout. Between the lines you can almost hear Vonnegut thinking, I don’t know what The Saturday Evening Post wants, so I’ll give them everything.
It’s not a bad story; it’s just not a Vonnegut story. His singular worldview had not yet found the page and neither had his voice. There is a spot where Vonnegut breaks through Mark Harvey, and we get one splendid visit from beyond. A teenage boy, recently orphaned, finds himself betrayed by life and deceived by his dreams. The following passage is heartbreakingly Vonnegut.
“At 2 a.m. Central Standard Time, as reckoned by the parlor mantle clock in the home of Brigadier General William Cooley, retired, a light beam left the burning Sun. At 2:08 it glanced from the lip of a Moon crater, and a second later died on Earth, in the staring eyes of Haley Brandon.”
When I read that I think of the young man who called himself Mark Harvey, who was just starting to realize there was genius in him. Maybe he was afraid of it, and maybe that fear held him hostage while he wrote cookie cutter stories for the slicks. Then one day he got brave and gave the world a great gift.
As Mr. Bradbury, victim of my “Jeopardy!” freak out, wrote in “Fahrenheit 451”: “The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her.”
In Mark Harvey’s “Basic Training” Kurt Vonnegut reached out a hand and touched life only to yank it back like a child reacting to a hot burner. It would be several years before he realized how much he liked the pain.
Woodbury resident Alexandra Kloster appears each Sunday. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and her blog is Radishes at Dawn at alexandrakloster.com.