The ''Garp'' author shares stories about his old friend, including when they first met, how Irving almost accidentally killed Vonnegut in a restaurant, and a gift Vonnegut made of Billy Wilder's golf cap
When author Kurt Vonnegut died last week at the age of 84, the first person EW rang was Vonnegut’s longtime friend John Irving, who was Vonnegut’s student at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the mid-’60s. Irving — the writer of The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and A Widow for One Year — was in a reflective mood, so we just listened as he talked at length about his sad and funny friend. If you like good Kurt Vonnegut stories, read on.
JOHN IRVING: ”I met him in ’65, and I was in the Workshop from ’65 to ’67. I spent the lion’s share of my time at Iowa with Kurt, and we’ve been close friends ever since. The only criticism he ever made of my writing was making fun of my fondness for semicolons, which Kurt never liked very much. He called semicolons ”transvestite hermaphrodites.” [Laughs] And so whenever we had a correspondence I would try to write him a letter that was one sentence connected by an infinite number of semicolons. [Laughs] But he was a great guy, and a particularly important influence on me at a young time, because I certainly knew from reading Dickens that you could break the rules in terms of putting comedy and tragedy in the same story or even the same scene. But Vonnegut was such a flaunting example of that in contemporary terms. He could write the most condemning stuff about human nature while being both funny and kind.
”I watched the Six-Day War in Vonnegut’s kitchen in Iowa City. My now-eldest son Colin was then two years old, and Kurt didn’t have any kids that age, so there weren’t any toys around for Colin. Kurt and I were trying to watch the war, but it’s tough to watch a war with a two-year-old. So Kurt got the idea that if we took all the pans and pots out of the kitchen cabinet, and gave Colin a couple of wooden spoons, then he could entertain himself, and we would have the appropriate background music for watching a war. And so that’s what we did. We gave Colin two wooden spoons, and all the pots and pans in Vonnegut’s kitchen, and turned up the volume.
”Kurt was a troubled guy. He had issues and episodes with depression — his mother had killed herself. I think the thought of suicide was one he held at bay, and the issue of depression was one he lived with, often by laughing at it. He was notorious for sort of being the most entertaining person at a dinner party until he abruptly got up and went home. And you kind of expected that from him. I was a neighbor of his for a number of years when I lived in Long Island — my year-round house was around the corner from Kurt’s summer house — and I would often come down to make coffee in the morning and find him sitting on the porch of my house smoking a cigarette. And he always said, ‘Oh, I just got here, and I just wondered if you were up,’ and he’d come in, and we’d have a cup of coffee, and he’d leave, and he’d say ‘Well, I’ll let you get to work.’ And then my kids would go outside and count the number of cigarette butts on the lawn, and by that we could come up with a fair estimation of how long he’d really been sitting there, waiting for someone to get up and make some coffee. His eccentricities were real.
”I once half-killed him in a New York restaurant, imagining at the time I was saving his life. At dinner he started to cough and hack in a terrible way, and he got up from the table, and I swore he was choking to death. I got my hands around his hips, but you can’t really Heimlich somebody properly when you’re only five foot six-and-a-half, which I am standing on my toes, and he’s a good six-two or -three. So I had no alternative but to knock him down on all fours and pound him from behind. And this is right in the middle of a pretty busy restaurant! I could imagine what people must’ve been thinking — ‘Crazy writers! Can’t they keep it at home or something?’ But I just hammered away on him down on the restaurant floor. And finally he was able to get his breath and say something, and he said, ‘John! I’m not choking, I have emphysema!’ [Laughs] That was the first I’d ever heard of it! [Laughs] This was back in the ’80s. I mean, if anybody was gonna get emphysema, it would’ve been Kurt with those nonstop Pall Malls over the years, but I didn’t know it at the time.
”He was a generous, generous friend. You’d always worry about him, how he was doing. If there was a message on your answering machine, you always thought, ‘Uh-oh, is he in trouble? Does he need to talk to somebody?’ And then you’d call, and it’d just be that he’d thought of something funny he wanted to tell you. Ten years ago, a package arrived from Kurt, and it didn’t look like a book or anything. I opened it, and it was a very ugly, soiled, sweat-stained golf cap, an old man’s kind of cap, something I would never wear, really grubby. And I thought, ‘What could this thing be? It’s disgusting!’ And the note — which was a classic — said, ‘Dear John, This hat once belonged to Billy Wilder. He gave it to Saul Steinberg. Saul gave it to me. I give it to you. Keep it going. Cheers, Kurt.’ Well, I was terrified. I thought, ‘What has happened in his life that has made him clean his house and decide to send such things on?’ I thought it was like getting a suicide note or something. [Laughs] So I called him on the phone and said, ‘Are you all right?’ And he said, ‘Of course, I’m all right!’ And I said, ‘Well, you sent me Billy Wilder’s hat,’ and he said, ‘Well, who would want that around for much longer?’ [Long Laugh] So with Kurt, you never quite knew what you were gonna get.”
”He was one of the very few and very select father figures in my life. There were a couple of wrestling coaches, a couple of English teachers, and Kurt. That was it. I just feel lucky that our paths crossed, because he gave me a lot of encouragement at a time when I was vulnerable and insecure enough to need it. He was a gentleman of the old school, but at the same time he had a warmth that was really childlike. He was a very loyal and sentimental friend. And everybody who knew him is gonna miss him.”
Irving — whose most recent novel, Until I Find You, came out in 2005 — adds that he’s currently ”off to a good start on Novel Number 12.” Its main character is a cook.