Kurt Vonnegut Opens a Car Dealership
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because all this happened, more or less.
By Sean Braswell
In Their Voice: A series featuring stories about famous writers told in their own voice.
Kurt Vonnegut has come unstuck in time.
Kurt has gone to sleep a weary soldier and awakened a struggling writer. Early in 1945, a group of American soldiers, Kurt among them, had witnessed the firebombed German city of Dresden. It looked like the surface of the moon.
Kurt blinked in 1945 and awoke at his desk in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, in 1957. He had yet to write Slaughterhouse-Five. Nobody would have mistaken him for a Great American Writer. Kurt had quit his public relations job at General Electric and moved his family to Cape Cod. Now he was freelancing for a Boston advertising agency. Between that and the handful of short stories he managed to sell, he still could not pay all the bills. So it goes.
One day, Kurt left the house and bought a car dealership.
To put it another way: Kurt needed to do something to support his growing family.
Then one day, Kurt left the house and bought a car dealership. He thought it would be an easy way to make some extra cash while he focused on his writing. Tallyho!
Kurt blinked again, and he was engulfed in a cloud of black smoke. It was still 1957, but now winter. It was Kurt’s job to regularly start his fleet of Saab 93s to keep their engines warm. Sometimes they belched smoke.
Get a load of this: Back then, Saab had only one model, a two-door sedan with a two-stroke engine that required you to pour in a can of oil when you filled the tank with gas. When the temperature fell below freezing, or if you neglected the car for too long, the oil separated from the gas and turned to molasses. One time, Kurt left a Saab in a parking lot for more than a week and blacked out the whole town of Woods Hole. Sorry about that.
Kurt blinked again and was back on his commute to the ad agency in Boston. In the lane ahead of him was a truck hauling half a dozen Saab cars. They were shaped like orange seeds. Kurt was intrigued and followed the truck to the dealership. Saab made airplanes in Sweden, and now it was trying to sell cars in America. Ha!
The chief selling point of the Saab was that the imported compact had front-wheel drive — great for icy New England roads. Kurt went for a test-drive and was sold on the Swedish technology. As one prospective customer later told him, “They make the best watches. Why wouldn’t they make the best cars, too?”
Kurt time-traveled again to 2005. He was an old man, giving an interview to a reporter.
Kurt: Yes, I was in the Saab business. And I think I was among the very first Saab dealers in the United States.
Reporter: That’s an act of optimism — selling one of those things back then. Those are weird cars.
Kurt: Yes, they certainly were.
Kurt says his failure as a dealer might explain why the Swedes never gave him a Nobel Prize in literature. There’s an old Norwegian proverb that puts it better. This is it: “Swedes have short dicks but long memories.”
The Swedes have their own proverb: “Norwegians have big boats for their small dicks.”
Kurt has slipped back to 1957. He is photographing his wife, Jane, on the hood of the family’s new cranberry-red Saab. The car looks like a spaceship outside their house. In order to become the owner of the first-ever Saab of Cape Cod, Kurt had asked Jane to use her father’s inheritance to purchase the first six cars. She agreed.
The fleet was housed in a small stone building off Route 6A. It’s still there today. The building, not the fleet. Kurt also bought some stationery, placed ads in a local paper and persuaded a local artist that he could work on his paintings during his downtime manning the dealership.
There were not many customers to worry about. For some reason, most car buyers were not interested in having to pour both oil and gas into their tanks. Which gave Kurt all the time in the world to write. Mostly, though, he spent his time smoking and worrying about whether he would sell any cars. He didn’t look like a car salesman at all. He looked like a dirty bird.
Kurt was tired. It turned out the only way to make the smallest profit was to screw the customer on the whitewalls or the radio. So it goes.
To make matters worse, Kurt’s demonstration vehicle kept breaking down all over town. Have I got a car for you!
And so on. Kurt blinked and it was spring again. He found himself on the side of the road in the cranberry Saab. Written on a sign in the back window are these words: “For Sale.” The trees were leafing out. Birds were talking. Somewhere a big dog barked.
The other cars were gone. Along with the dealership. And his wife’s inheritance. There was a manuscript on the seat next to him. Here is what it said: The Sirens of Titan.
So it goes.