Lovers of Indiana literature kick off the holiday season tonight in Indianapolis. “A Very Special Christmas with Dan Wakefield at the Benton House” celebrates the reissue of the best-selling author’s World War II home front novel, Under the Apple Tree. Wakefield, a native Hoosier known as a journalist, screenwriter, and writer on spirituality, is perhaps best known for his 1970 novel, Going All The Way, which has been called the Catcher in the Rye of the Midwest. He is also the editor of The Letters of Kurt Vonnegut, published in 2014. During a visit to WFIU earlier this fall, Wakefield recalled how Vonnegut came to play a key role in his life as literary mentor and friend.
I’ve got a telegram here from Vonnegut, who says, ‘You must publish this important novel. Get this boy in our stable.’
Dan Wakefield: The publisher who liked the manuscript of Going All The Way had just published Slaughterhouse-Five the year before, so he said to me, “Do you mind if–can we send this to Kurt, and it would really help if he gave us a blurb or something.” And I said, “Yeah, I’ve only met him once but we’ve corresponded and he seemed like a great guy. My novel is nothing like what he does so I have no idea what he’d think, but go ahead.” And then a couple days later, the publisher calls and he says, “I’ve got a telegram here from Vonnegut, who says, ‘You must publish this important novel. Get this boy in our stable.'”
And then [Vonnegut] reviewed it in Life magazine. And it was one of the funniest reviews I’ve ever– it said: “Dan Wakefield is a friend of mine. I would praise this novel even if it were putrid.” Nobody’s ever used “putrid” in a book review before! “But,” he said, “I wouldn’t give my Word of Honor it was really good. And I give my Word of Honor.” And then he went on. And we were friends from then on.
Dan Wakefield is a friend of mine. We both went to Shortridge High School in Indianapolis–where the students put out a daily paper, by the way. His publisher is my publisher. He has boomed my books. So I would praise his first novel, even if it were putrid. But I wouldn’t give my Word of Honor that is was good.
Word of Honor: Mr. Wakefield has been a careful and deep author of nonfiction for years–Island in the City, Revolt in the South, The Addict….The Atlantic Monthly gave him an issue all his own for Supernation at Peace and War. Word of Honor: he is also an important novelist now.
Going All the Way is about what hell it is to be oversexed in Indianapolis, and why so many oversexed people run away from there. It is also about the narrowness and dimness of many lives out that way. And I guarantee you this: Wakefield himself, having written this book, can never go home again. From now on, he will have to watch the 500-mile Speedway race on television.
–from Kurt Vonnegut, “Oversexed in Indianapolis,” Life, July 17, 1970
These two young guys see us in the Waldorf bar. They obviously are staring at Kurt, so they come over and ask, “Are you the real Kurt Vonnegut?” And he says,”Yeah,” but then he says, “but this is my friend Dan Wakefield.”
You know, he was so supportive of not just me, but all his writer friends, and even his– I love that his letters include people from his high school days, friends throughout his life.
And typical of him–the last time I saw him, I was in New York with a book called The Hijacking of Jesus. And the book didn’t get much response. And he had come to a talk I gave in New York about it. And then he said, let’s go have dinner. And we were sitting in the Waldorf bar, having a steak, and these two young guys see us. And they obviously are staring at Kurt and they come over and one of them says, “Are you the real Kurt Vonnegut?” And he says,”Yeah,” but then he says, “but this is my friend Dan Wakefield,” and he starts telling them all about my book, which they had no interest in the world in, but that was the way he was, to promote his friends, and help them.
He was a rare, rare human being.
And by the way, we had a funny longstanding dialogue about humanism and Christianity. And the Sunday that my piece “Returning to Church” came out I came home from church and on the answering machine, it said, “This is Kurt, I forgive you.”
And then years later I saw he had a poem in The New Yorker. I never knew he wrote any poems. And I sent him a postcard. And I said, “I see you are now a poet. I forgive you.” And then he sent back a postcard and said, “Not as bad as you becoming a Christian.”
But, the funny thing is, I’ve written a pretty long essay, “Kurt Vonnegut, Christ-Loving Atheist.” And that’s his term. He really wrote more perceptively about Jesus than most theologians in his novels and talks. He was very sensitive about that.
A Very Special Christmas with Dan Wakefield at the Benton House
Author Dan Wakefield speaks and signs copies of his reissued novel Under the Apple Tree. Featuring refreshments and music by the Sophie Faught Trio.
The Benton House, 312 S Downey Ave, Indianapolis, IN 46219
Thursday, December 3, 2015, 5:30-8:30 pm