posted 2012-11-21 22:14:11

Friendship Lingers After Death

A Talk with Sidney Offit about Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Ariana L. Guzman

Contributing Writer

When renowned teacher and editor Sidney Offit opened the discussion in the faculty dining room on Oct. 22 to discuss his late friend, iconic author Kurt Vonnegut Jr., his face glowed. Offit spoke excitedly of Vonnegut, almost as if he was sitting in the room. It was a friendship Offit still treasures to this day. Author Norman Mailer once told Offit that “being Vonnegut’s best friend is your greatest literary legacy.”

Offit opened his discussion by imploring the audience to consider the concept of having a best friend, which he had overlooked during young adulthood. However, in his 1981 book Palm Sunday, Vonnegut included a four-page list of writers he knew. Next to Sidney Offit’s name was the phrase “best friend.” It was this public acknowledgment that Norman Mailer referred to as Offit’s greatest literary legacy. While Offit had not thought of the precise title best friend, Vonnegut obviously had. Offit wondered why he had not come to the same conclusion earlier.
According to Offit, the pair frequently played games of tennis and ping pong, among other activities. One hilarious story was told about Offit and Vonnegut journeying to a pornographic theater together to watch the 1979 film Caligula, starring Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren. Vonnegut walked out of the theater after about ten minutes. Offit followed him, and asked what was wrong. Vonnegut said, “Too much of a good thing.” Upon hearing this, the audience (ranging from late teens to people in their late seventies and eighties) erupted into raucous laughter. Offit himself was in audible guffaws as he recalled the memory.

Along the way, Offit discussed some of Vonnegut’s novels. He described Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s most famous work, as “iconic” and “haunting.” Published in 1969, the novel tells the story of a young, ill-trained soldier who witnesses the World War II bombings in Dresden, Germany. Vonnegut serves as a narrator, and the plot is loosely based on his own experiences in Dresden. “Vonnegut dealt with it aesthetically, spiritually, with craft,” Offit said. He described Vonnegut as having “total control of the narrative voice,” which in his opinion is the most difficult part of writing. Vonnegut had style; he used syntax to his advantage and chose every word with excruciating care. According to Offit, Vonnegut “severely edited and would fill an entire waste basket. Pages were crafted with care.”
Vonnegut and Offit shared intimacies the way close friends do. Vonnegut often told Offit, “We live too long...Don’t be greedy.” Offit said the best advice Vonnegut ever gave him was “Chew your meat. Have fun,” an apothegm Vonnegut always told him during their frequent trips to steakhouses. According to Vonnegut, the older you get, the more difficult chewing becomes. Vonnegut seemed full of verbose gems in his everyday life that his friends, family and students were able to appreciate first hand.
Offit was asked about the authenticity of a recent Kurt Vonnegut biography published last year. And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles Shields received critical acclaim and portrayed Vonnegut as a man full of contradictions. According to Shields, Vonnegut could be generous and abrasive, as well as sentimental and emotionally remote all at the same time. Offit spoke in a convincing British accent to express his extreme displeasure with the biography. He described the prose as being “very inaccurate,” and far from the truth.

When celebrating an iconic author, it is easy for readers to look beyond the writing. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was more than a talented writer. He was also a husband, father, grandfather and friend. Sidney Offit described his friendship with Kurt Vonnegut as being “like a good marriage, full of humor. Kurt and I laughed a lot.” Through it all, Vonnegut and Offit were there for each other, just as best friends should be.