A couple of years ago on some C-SPAN broadcast, Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut were talking about what influenced their writing careers the most. Not surprisingly, they both replied that WW II was the absolutely most definitive thing that happened to them. Surprisingly, the effect was not wholly negative; in fact, they were both pretty enthusiastic about the war, strange since each had certainly had plenty of bad experiences, as evidenced in their writing. Yet, Heller flatly said that if not for the war, he would have been working as a dry cleaner. Vonnegut wholeheartedly agreed, and added further that he had no idea what he would be doing today if not for the war.
Lee Stringer, the author of Grand Central Winter, who is the real focus of the book-length interview, Like Shaking Hands with God, is cut from the same cloth as these men. His circumstances are wildly different and perhaps more relevant to the present time, but the way he describes his descent into homelessness and life on the streets is almost cheerful. How weird. His prose does not try to place blame or address the causes and effects of homelessness. It is rather evocative of the human condition. Stringer’s inspiration to write came after running out of cocaine, and proceeding to use his pencil as a writing implement instead of a resin scraper for his crack pipe.
Now at 47, with his first successful book published, the formerly homeless Stringer is embarking on a new sort of life. As part of this life, he has to sit in bookstores with other writers and talk about his art. And although Vonnegut himself has hailed Stringer as the Jack London of our day—which could mean several things—it is strange to see Stringer in the company of this garrulous and bizarre 77-year-old in twilight of a long successful, career as a writer.
Throughout the two interviews that make up this book, Vonnegut’s advice sounds not like that of a man who is farther along the road each writer must travel but rather like that of one trying to hack out his own private path and make Lee follow. Here is an old established writer giving advice to a guy who in the act of turning his life around and getting off crack, booze and the streets, managed to write a book, and you’re going to talk to him about art, and the high road and selling out?
Joseph Heller’s recent death, and Vonnegut’s cheerful morbidity, remind us that we are losing the generation of writers who were in one way or another molded by WW II. Seven Stories Press, in publishing these two interviews, which honestly amount to nothing more than a good magazine article, is certainly cashing in on the inevitability of Vonnegut’s death, and it is promoting one of its own writers, Lee Stringer. You hate to be Yossarian about it, but considering the rewards, if Milo Minderbinder, the guy who bombs his own base because he can make a profit from it, were around today, I bet he’d be in publishing.