Not Built For This: Kurt Vonnegut's Sportswriting Career

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There are certainly exceptions out there, but most every writer I've met gives Kurt Vonnegut at least some of the credit or blame for why s/he writes. And while other writers have become more important to me in the years since I first read Vonnegut, I get a feeling when I think about Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat's Cradle or even Mother Night that I don't get when I think about books that have influenced me more, or which I'm more likely to re-read. That first great literary surprise I got from Vonnegut, which amounted to the sudden realization that the rules governing stories and storytelling could in fact be hugely fun to break, has changed the way that I think about not just reading, but pretty much everything. Except for haircuts, admittedly, where I'm still pretty conservative. It is a surprise I still get from good books and articles and stories and so on, but one which I've never gotten quite as thrillingly as that first time I got it, from Slaughterhouse-Five.

I knew, I guess, that Vonnegut had a difficult life marked by depression and addiction and unhappiness. There's a great scene in Keith Gordon's (actually pretty good) film of Mother Night in which Vonnegut, in a wordless cameo, casts a glance up at Nick Nolte, who is frozen in hopelessness on the sidewalk, and then looks at him again, with a depth of despondent empathy that no actor—or at least no actor who had not suffered as much as Vonnegut had, and who was not having what must have been the strange experience of encountering one of his lost characters and being unable to give him directions home—could match. Charles J. Shields' new biography of Vonnegut seems, among other things, to be a detailed, heartbreaking backstory to Vonnegut's two bleak looks in that scene. I'm not sure I want to read it. Vonnegut is dead and great, and does not need my protection, but I still don't want to see him hurt.

Which is all kind of a long way into a story about Vonnegut's brief and pyrotechnically unsuccessful career at Sports Illustrated, which I heard about thanks to the generosity of tipster Kirsten Neuhaus. Vonnegut himself told the story to Robert B. Weide, who wrote the screenplay for Mother Night (and was the executive producer of Curb Your Enthusiasm, oddly), in a letter that's excerpted here, at VonnegutWeb:

When the magazine was only a glint in the eyes of Luce Publications, they hired a bunch of sports writers from yokel venues who, it turned out, couldn’t write. So then they hired a bunch of writers who didn’t care or know squat about sports. I was part of that second batch, having gone broke as only the daddy of six kids on Cape Cod can hit the big casino.

There's more to the letter, but the long story short is that it didn't go well. Vonnegut got one assignment at Sports Illustrated: a story about a racehorse that leapt a rail and escaped from the track. After hours spent staring at his desk, Vonnegut reportedly left the office—for good, because this is a fucking boss we're talking about, here—with just one sentence written. The sentence was: "The horse jumped over the fucking fence.''

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