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Originally published Friday, April 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM


"Armageddon in Retrospect" is a posthumous collection of Kurt Vonnegut's writings

"Armageddon in Retrospect" by Kurt Vonnegut is a posthumous collection of parables, short stories, essays and drawings published a year after the author's death.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Armageddon in Retrospect"

by Kurt Vonnegut

G.P. Putnam's Sons, 234 pp., $24.95

Reading Kurt Vonnegut again after 20 years reminds me why I was drawn to him in the first place, and not why I cast him aside in callow disaffection, bothered by those writerly gimmicks and pat phrases ("so it goes," "hi ho" and others).

"Armageddon in Retrospect" — a posthumous collection of parables, short stories, essays and drawings published a year after the author's death — is largely devoid of such stylistic quirks, and displays Vonnegut at his inimitable best: a blending of humor and trenchant social commentary implied through story and character.

Vonnegut's outlook is fiercely anti-war, opinions likely formed from his experiences in World War II, when he was captured behind enemy lines and taken to Dresden, Germany. As a POW there, he survived the American bombings of February 1945 that destroyed the city and killed more than 100,000 civilians and that became the topic of his celebrated 1969 novel "Slaughterhouse-Five."

In "Armageddon" Vonnegut reprises the end-of war context in several short stories and nonfiction pieces. The searing essay "Wailing Shall Be in All Streets" concludes, in part, with these thoughts:

"There can be no doubt that the Allies fought on the side of right and the Germans and Japanese on the side of wrong. World War II was fought for near-Holy motives. But I stand convinced that the brand of justice in which we dealt, wholesale bombings of civilian populations, was blasphemous. That the enemy did it first has nothing to do with the moral problem." Vonnegut's take on war and warriors is astute, with relevance to the current American conflict. Included in the collection is the author's final speech, delivered after his death by son Mark Vonnegut (who also wrote the introduction for this book). The speech is wide-ranging, at once biting and flippant. "Well, I'm sure you know that our country is the only so-called advanced nation that still has a death penalty," he observes. "And torture chambers. I mean, why screw around?"

In one story, "Spoils," Vonnegut depicts a soldier's thoughts and actions in deciding whether to take home wartime booty from vanquished German households. In "The Commandant's Desk," the narrator is a wary Czech POW under American military occupation after a superpower nuclear war.

My favorite piece is "Guns Before Butter" in which three American POWs, surviving on the meagerest of rations, imagine future meals in vivid and hilarious detail. The fantasies range from sublime gourmet dishes to such "caloric blockbusters" as a tower of pancakes layered with fried eggs and topped with hot fudge.

There are a few rough edges that may be inevitable with this assortment of genres. The title story about a scientific study of the devil and his influences falls flat. The writer's illustrations, doodles really, don't add insight or value.

Yet this book offers many moments of clarity and brilliance, sparking in this reader a fondness that went beyond mere nostalgia. Although the topics are often grim, Vonnegut's writing — deceptively simple and full of whimsy and provocation — is ultimately hopeful, and will surely add to his notable reputation in American literature.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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