'And So It Goes': Kurt Vonnegut, disenchanted genius
Book review: Charles J. Shields' new biography "And So It Goes — Kurt Vonnegut: A Life," showcases the "Slaughterhouse-Five" author's genius as well as his all-too-human failings.
Special to The Seattle Times
'And So It Goes — Kurt Vonnegut: A Life'
by Charles J. Shields
Henry Holt, 544 pp., $30
When I was a young author, I wrote to Kurt Vonnegut. He wrote back. He said that because I had written a novel, I was "as close a blood relative as my brother Bernard. The best thing about our family, our profession, is that its members are not envious or competitive."
Anyone who knows writers understands this is not necessarily true. This was, however, a kind notion for a famous author to share with an admiring novice, and entirely consistent with one of his famous pieces of life advice, "God damn it, you've got to be kind!"
When he died in 2007 at age 84, social networks suddenly buzzed with Vonnegutisms, including his advice to college graduates, "The most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured."
This is the Kurt Vonnegut I want to remember, the generous novelist who viewed writers as kin, the wry humanist who believed we all must be kind, the active citizen who imagined a better world.
Charles J. Shields, author of a Harper Lee biography, warns us in the introduction that it's the contrast between the artist and the art that intrigues him, explaining that after he met the writer, "my impression was that Kurt Vonnegut, humanist and champion of families in his novels, was a lonely, disenchanted man. What might be the reasons?"
So there you have it, the biographer's angle.
With thorough research and workmanlike style, Shields covers the early years, where Vonnegut, a P.R. man for General Electric, learned the craft of promotion before chucking it all to write formulaic stories for magazines, followed by his lean years as a struggling novelist and teacher at the Iowa creative writing program until, as he was approaching 50, the seminal experience of his life — laboring as a World War II prisoner of war in Dresden when the city was firebombed — finally jelled into a best-selling novel "Slaughterhouse-Five." Shields never fully answers the question of why Vonnegut was lonely in his later years, but there is a touch of the tired idea that fame and success sometimes aren't all they are cracked up to be.
Knowing that the best-selling author was bothered by the lack of a biography, Shields approached Vonnegut about writing one in 2006. Vonnegut said no, but Shields flattered and persisted until Vonnegut agreed. They began meeting in December of '06. On March 14 of '07, Vonnegut fell down the steps of his Manhattan brownstone. He died about a month later.
Shields, who had planned to spend years interviewing Vonnegut, got three months. He thereafter built this biography from interviews with Vonnegut's friends, family and colleagues, as well as letters, articles and, of course, Vonnegut's novels, which Shields seems to know and value. Shields comes across as a fan of the art if not the artist.
On the last day Shields saw Vonnegut, the novelist instructed his biographer to look up Kurt Vonnegut in the dictionary. Shields looked, but there was no entry for Vonnegut.
"Now, look up Jack Kerouac," Vonnegut said.
There was a Kerouac entry.
Vonnegut frowned. "How about that?"
Adults know that success does not necessarily equal security and great artists, like great athletes, are not always great people. Still, initially I did feel twinges of discomfort when I read how Vonnegut treated friends and family poorly, had flashes of insecurity, and occasionally violated his own rules of "common human decency," but then I started to laugh, imagining how Vonnegut would loathe this book.
You always hurt the one you love, as the pop song says. Shields may resent that the artist did not lead a more artful life, but Shields understands and appreciates Vonnegut's brand, the unique mix of sci-fi, postmodernism and humanism that made Vonnegut a star in the '60s and one of our last literary icons at the time of his death.
He said some brilliant things, he said some stupid things. And, I have to say it, so it goes.
I will always remember him as a blood relative.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist is the author of "The King of Methlehem."
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