"Im 83 years old, for Chrissake," says Kurt Vonnegut, and gives a burst of wheezy laughter.
"I never expected to be here this long." With his big, moist eyes, his mop of grey curls, his droopy moustache and his unusually long ear-lobes, Vonnegut looks peculiarly like a spaniel in human form.
But there's nothing cuddly or benign about his latest foray into print. Far from slipping quietly into the shadows, it is as if he's fastened his hands around the throat of America and given it one last infuriated shake.
His new book, A Man Without a Country, includes a series of broadsides against America's ruling elite, who, he believes, have made the country "as feared and hated all over the world as the Nazis were . . We have dehumanised millions and millions of human beings simply because of their religion and race. We kill 'em and torture 'em and imprison 'em all we want."
As for George Bush and his cohorts, Vonnegut reckons they're psychopaths as well as idiots - "congenitally defective human beings with no consciences". And just in case this wasn't incendiary enough, there are his recently voiced thoughts about suicide bombers - "very brave people who are dying for their own self-respect".
You might assume that these tirades would make Vonnegut a marked man, with scores of people itching to nail him to the wall for being an unpatriotic crackpot. But not a bit of it. A Man Without a Country has been a huge success in America and, rather to his bemusement, Vonnegut now finds his literary star sitting higher than it's done in years.
"I have always been a person totally without rank in this country," he tells me. "I've never won a prize or anything like that. Never held any position of authority. I am what I was in the Second World War, which is a private, First Class."
"I can't think of any other writer who has won a Purple Heart for bravery," I point out. He gives an awkward shrug. "Yeah, well, maybe it would be embarrassing to go into that."
We are sitting in Vonnegut's favourite Italian restaurant in Manhattan, situated on a bleak stretch of Second Avenue. The restaurant is an almost defiantly dreary place, with walls covered in splodgy paintings of khaki-coloured mountainsides.
Vonnegut, however, plainly relishes its air of sedate drabness. Apart from anything else, he says, the last thing he's looking for is unpredictability - he's already had enough of that to last anyone a lifetime.
Just as his literary universe abounds in absurdity and catastrophe, so too has Vonnegut's real world. At 19, as a prisoner of war in Germany, he witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden - an experience that gave rise to his most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five. Soon after he came back from the war, his mother committed suicide.
In the 1960s, his only son, Mark, went through a psychotic breakdown, and 20 years later Vonnegut himself tried to commit suicide. In the mid-1970s, Vonnegut's sister died of cancer, just 24 hours after losing her husband in a car crash. (Vonnegut and his then-wife, with whom he'd had three children, promptly adopted three of their orphaned nephews.) Then, in 2000, he nearly died of smoke inhalation when fire destroyed most of his house.
According to Vonnegut, there's not much you can do when faced with such horrors, except try to laugh at them. For him, humour is the only appropriate lens through which to view the follies of the world. But beneath the exuberance of novels such as Breakfast of Champions and Mother Night, with their wild digressions into whimsy, science fiction and personal memoir, there's always a quiet moan of anguish going on - a sense of disbelief at the messes people make of their lives, as well as the even bigger mess that human beings have made of the planet.
"What I have always tried to do is look for the things that make life worth living," he says.
"In fact, you could say that my whole life has been made up of lots of minor epiphanies. Quite by chance, I was thinking of one the other day involving the British.
"During the war, my whole division was destroyed and the Germans took those of us who had survived to this prisoner-of-war camp called Stalag 4B. The camp was full of British officers, who were incredibly kind and welcoming. We were hungry and cold and filthy and they fed us and put on this play to cheer us up. The play was Cinderella, with a male Cinderella, of course. I still remember a line from it - it was one of the best things I've ever heard in my life. When the clock struck 12, Cinderella turned to the audience and said, 'Goodness me, the clock has struck! Alack a day and f--- my luck!' "
Vonnegut bursts into an even louder guffaw of wheezy laughter than before - he sounds like a starter motor churning over and over.
"Although I can't explain why exactly, that made me feel that life was worth living again. Suddenly, despite everything, human beings really seemed rather wonderful."
He has, he says, always been a joker. As a child, he scarcely stopped cracking jokes - partly in order to get attention and partly to try to alleviate the pall of gloom that invariably hovered over the Vonnegut household.
"I was brought up in the Depression and things were pretty bad. My mother had come from a rich Indianapolis family but they lost all their money in the Wall Street crash, while my father was an architect who couldn't get any work. I remember I used to spend a lot of time listening to comedians on the radio. I guess that's what first gave me the idea that if you can still laugh, then all hope isn't lost.
"Sometimes people ask me about my literary influences, but I don't think I had any. However, I have always felt indebted to Laurel and Hardy. I loved them as a child but I also recognised how innocent, how vulnerable, they were. In making the world a happier place, they were also calling attention to its dangers."
By the time Vonnegut was 18, he was fighting in France. When he came back, he worked in public relations for General Electric. Then, in the late 1940s, he began to write short stories.
"I had no ambition at all as a writer," he insists. "No sense of destiny or anything like that. All I wanted to do was to be able to support my family. I sent my stories off to these two magazines. They paid quite well and I found I never had any shortage of ideas. I wrote a lot of science fiction, but I also used to mix in other stuff as well."
What's remarkable about his early work is how confident it is. From the moment he started typing away - seldom with any idea of where he was heading - he had his own distinctive, unselfconsciously eccentric voice.
"Well, I was a genius, for Chrissake," he says, spluttering away. "But you know, all I was really trying to do was make myself laugh. The trouble was that technology came along and knocked the piss out of everything. Television arrived on the scene, the magazines all went bust and I had to scramble about for another way to earn a living.
"I started writing more novels. But I worked out that if I wrote a hardback novel, I'd have to wait a year to get paid. Whereas if I wrote for a scruffy soft-backed publisher, then I'd get paid straightaway. When it came to money or reputation, there was no contest, I went for money every time."
During some particularly lean years, Vonnegut sold cars for a living - he ran a Saab dealership in Cape Cod. All the while, though, something was nagging away at him. "Occasionally I would say to myself, 'shit, you actually experienced the fire-bombing of Dresden, the biggest massacre in European history, in which 135,000 people were killed in one night - why don't you write about that?'
"For a while I thought of writing a movie script about it - I figured I could probably earn more money that way. I tried to think of parts for Frank Sinatra and John Wayne and all those American tough guys, but somehow I just couldn't make it work.
"Then I happened to visit an old war buddy of mine in Philadelphia. We were sitting round swapping stories when all of a sudden my buddy's wife blew her stack. She said, 'Why are you pretending to be tough guys? You were just babies'. And she was right - that's what we were: children in terrible trouble. So I decided to write about that instead."
For 24 hours in February 1945, Vonnegut and 100 other POWs had been locked in the cellar of a Dresden abattoir while the city was razed.
"How big was the cellar?' I wondered.
'Well . . ," Vonnegut looks around. "About the size of this restaurant, I guess. Luckily, there wasn't much to burn around us - there were just these pens that they'd kept animals in. I can remember coming out of the cellar when the bombing was over and there was nothing left standing. We couldn't believe it. Our guards were these kids and old men who had been invalided back from the Russian front. They were far more traumatised than we were because Dresden was their home. They just kept saying, 'How is this possible?' "
Slaughterhouse-Five was about as far from a conventional war novel as you can get. Its hero, Billy Pilgrim, travels back and forth in time and also makes several trips to the planet Tralfamadore, whose inhabitants - the Tralfamadorians - are two feet high and have green skin. Throughout the narrative, usually at the grimmest moments, the action is punctuated by bursts of authorial flippancy from Vonnegut - most memorably in the oft-repeated phrase "So it goes".
"Basically, I wrote it that way because that was how it came out," he says.
"I wasn't trying to be particularly experimental. But I do think the Vietnam War freed me and other writers, because it made our leadership and our motives seem so scruffy and essentially stupid. We could finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis. And what I saw, what I had to report, made war look so ugly."
Slaughterhouse-Five was a huge success, becoming mandatory reading for a generation of college students. But while the publishing world was astounded by how well it did, Vonnegut took the whole business in his stride.
"I can't honestly say I was that surprised, no. I mean, it was nice to have some more money, but it wasn't as if I had been penniless. Essentially, life carried on much as before."
In A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut writes that for him, becoming an artist was not an act of rebellion. Because so many of his family were artists of one kind or another, "it was like taking over the family Esso station". But just as creativity ran in the family, so did depression.
"It was an unmentionable subject when I was growing up. After I came back from the war, I married my childhood sweetheart, but my mother was very against it because she said there was insanity in the family. And then my mother went and committed suicide. I mean, what can you say to that? Sometimes life can be a joke - that's all there is to it.
"My mother's death didn't come as that much of a shock because she had been so unhappy. But it was kept an absolute secret. Oh god, yes. Even the coroner hushed it up because if the news got out, it would have made members of the family less marriageable."
When Vonnegut says that he has never held an official title, this isn't strictly true: he is the honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having taken over from friend and fellow novelist Isaac Asimov.
"Being a humanist means that you try to behave as decently, as honourably, as you can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. When we had a memorial service for Isaac a few years back, I spoke at it and said at one point, 'Isaac is up in heaven now'. It was the funniest thing I could think of to say to an audience of humanists. Believe me, it worked - I rolled them in the aisles. If I should ever die, god forbid, I hope people will say, 'Kurt is up in heaven now'. That's my favourite joke."
His own future may be uncertain, but Vonnegut is even less sanguine about the future of the planet. It is the one subject he finds it impossible to joke about.
"The world is going to end," he says glumly but confidently. "No doubt about it."
"How long do you think we have got?"
"Really, not long. And it's all our fault - that's the tragedy. Civilisation will come to an end when we run out of fossil fuels. I would guess that would be in the next five years. Human beings are pretty hardy so they will probably go on for a bit. But within a hundred years, the last one will be gone. It's terrible, but I absolutely believe it's going to happen."
Somehow, it's hard to think of anything to say after this. We both sit in silence until Vonnegut, apropos of nothing at all, but with at least a partial return to his former good humour, exclaims suddenly, "Goodness me, the clock has struck! Alack a day and f--- my luck!"
Man Without a Country is published by Seven Stories Press at $35.
Originally published in The Age here. Comment below.