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Author of comic novels with moral vision

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK -- Kurt Vonnegut, whose dark comic talent and urgent moral vision in novels including Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater caught the temper of his times and the imagination of a generation, died last night in Manhattan. He was 84 and had homes in Manhattan and in Sagaponack on Long Island.

His death was reported by Morgan Entrekin, a longtime family friend, who said Mr. Vonnegut suffered brain injuries as a result of a fall several weeks ago.

Mr. Vonnegut wrote plays, essays and short fiction. But it was his novels that became classics of the counterculture, making him a literary idol, particularly to students in the 1960s and 1970s.

Like Mark Twain, Mr. Vonnegut used humor to tackle the basic questions of human existence and, like Twain, had a profound pessimism.

"Mark Twain," Mr. Vonnegut wrote in his 1991 book Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage, "finally stopped laughing at his own agony and that of those around him. He denounced life on this planet as a crock. He died."

Mr. Vonnegut's 14 novels were alternative universes populated by races of his own creation, such as the Tralfamadorians, and made-up religions such as the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent and Bokononism.

The defining moment of Mr. Vonnegut's life was the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, by Allied forces in 1945, an event he witnessed as a prisoner of war. Thousands of civilians were killed in the raids.

The raid was the basis of Slaughterhouse-Five, which was published in 1969 against the backdrop of war in Vietnam, racial unrest and cultural and social upheaval. The novel, wrote the critic Jerome Klinkowitz, "so perfectly caught America's transformative mood that its story and structure became best-selling metaphors for the new age."

Mr. Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922, the youngest of three children. His father, Kurt Sr., was an architect. His mother, Edith, came from a wealthy brewery family. Mr. Vonnegut's brother, Bernard, who died in 1997, was a physicist and an expert on thunderstorms.

During the Depression, Edith Vonnegut suffered from episodes of mental illness. She committed suicide, an act that haunted her son for the rest of his life.

Mr. Vonnegut attended Cornell University but enlisted in the Army before he could get a degree. In 1944, he went to Europe with the 106th Infantry Division and saw combat in the Battle of the Bulge. With his unit nearly destroyed, he wandered behind enemy lines for several days until he was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp near Dresden.

When the war ended, Mr. Vonnegut returned to the United States and married his high school sweetheart, Jane Marie Cox. They settled in Chicago in 1945. The couple had three children, Mark, Edith and Nanette.

In 1958, Mr. Vonnegut's sister, Alice, and her husband died within a day of each other, she of cancer and he in a train crash. The Vonneguts adopted their children, Tiger, Jim and Steven.

In Chicago, Mr. Vonnegut was a police reporter for Chicago's City News Bureau.

In 1947, he moved to Schenectady, N.Y., and took a job in public relations for General Electric Co. Three years later he sold his first short story, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," to Collier's magazine and moved his family to Cape Cod, Mass., where he wrote fiction for magazines.

His first novel was Player Piano, published in 1952, a satire on corporate life. It was followed in 1959 by The Sirens of Titan, a science fiction novel featuring the Church of God of the Utterly Indifferent.

In 1963, Mr. Vonnegut published Cat's Cradle. Though it initially sold only about 500 copies, it is widely read today in high school English classes. The narrator, an adherent of the Zen-like religion Bokononism, witnesses the destruction of the world by Ice-Nine, which, on contact, causes water to freeze at room temperature.

Mr. Vonnegut shed the label of science fiction writer with Slaughterhouse-Five. It tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, an infantry scout (as Mr. Vonnegut had been), who discovers the horror of war. The novel also featured a signature phrase.

"Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round," Mr. Vonnegut wrote at the end of the book, "was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes.

"Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes. And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam. So it goes."

"So it goes" became a catch- phrase for opponents of the Vietnam War.

Slaughterhouse-Five reached No.1 on best-seller lists, making Mr. Vonnegut a cult hero.

After the book was published, Mr. Vonnegut went into severe depression and vowed never to write another novel. Suicide was always a temptation, he wrote. In 1984, he tried to take his life with sleeping pills and alcohol.

Forsaking novels, Mr. Vonnegut decided to become a playwright. His first effort, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, opened Off Broadway in 1970 to mixed reviews. About that time he separated from his wife, Jane, and moved to New York. She remarried and died in 1986.

In 1979, Mr. Vonnegut married photographer Jill Krementz. He is survived by his wife, their daughter, Lily, and his other children.

Mr. Vonnegut returned to novels with Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday in 1973 and, in 1997, Timequake, a tale of the millennium in which a wrinkle in space-time compels the world to relive the 1990s. The book, though it was a best-seller, it also met with mixed reviews.

Mr. Vonnegut said in the prologue to Timequake that it would be his last novel, which it was.

His last book, in 2005, was a collection of biographical essays, A Man Without a Country. It, too, was a best seller.

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