Review by Anthony C. Hayes
In his introduction to Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut entrusts his readers with the moral of the story: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”
Cutting through the potential pretense of a cultural icon is admittedly a delicate affair. One must tread carefully in the court of the king. In his new book, And So It Goes - Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, Charles J. Shields not only walks gingerly, he plays it smart, delivering a biography which illuminates the subject and should benefit both the seasoned buff and the fledgling first year student.
The illumination, however, often casts Vonnegut in a less than flattering light.
Shields acknowledges that it was he who approached Vonnegut with the idea of a biography. Vonnegut demurs at first then bites, revealing in one interview his belief that he has been slighted by the absence of his name in a dictionary that includes Kerouac, among other authors.
The author notes this as one of many instances where Vonnegut felt his work had been ignored or mistreated. Shields intention was to spend several years living with the man to write the story. What he got instead was some months correspondence and late night telephone calls, culminating in a few visits between December 2006 and March 2007, when Vonnegut took a fall from which he never recovered.
Vonnegut’s second wife—the photographer Jill Krementz—would not give Shields an interview and Vonnegut’s son Mark, co-executor of his father’s estate refused to allow Shields the opportunity to quote directly from over 250 of Vonnegut’s personal letters. What is included was culled from numerous interviews and a wide variety of other sources.
The picture which emerges is not so much of a hero but rather a frustrated artist who often lashes out at those closest to his cause. The octogenarian whom Shields encountered came across a bitter, lonely old man.
Shields breaks no new ground here in either storytelling or style. By and large, he avoids biographic fantasy. Yet he does the one thing a good biographer should always do. He lays out the life of his subject in an interesting and informative manner and then steps aside to let the reader digest what she has just read.
The research in this biography is exhaustive: almost 1900 footnotes, a 12 page bibliography and an appendix to complement a 415 page trek through a time which Vonnegut himself once described as, “The Golden Age of White People”.
Vonnegut lived a full and fascinating life. Growing up in the shadow of his brother Bernard, who would make his name as an atmospheric scientist, Kurt took turns at a family hardware store; as a pundit at Cornell University and as a reporter for a news collecting bureau in early war time Chicago.
His mother’s suicide and his father’s decline are seen as strengthening young Kurt’s determination to be a writer, while his Army service and subsequent work at General Electric read like his own best fiction. Vonnegut was captured at the Battle of the Bulge and then survived the fire-bombing of Dresden. After returning from the war, he went to work as a publicity agent for G.E. only to quit when he found himself overwhelmed by the suffocating structure of corporate America.
There are no real villains in this volume. If anything, Vonnegut comes off as his own worst enemy. At times it was a miracle he was able to persevere. But in persevering, Vonnegut honed his skills as a visionary and a writer. It took almost fifteen years before his work gained true recognition and another five before widespread acclaim. People think Vonnegut was a product of his times but it was the times which finally caught up with Vonnegut.
Punctuating Shields book are several instances of Vonnegut’s sardonic side - the dark humor which help to fill in the blanks of a writer whose works are best described as comic didactic. Similarly, reading the account of his wartime experiences and the men with whom he served provides deeper understanding of the demons Vonnegut sought to exorcize in Slaughterhouse Five.
Shields maintains that Vonnegut was at heart a haunted man. How could he not be, given the horrors of World War II?
And So It Goes - Kurt Vonnegut: A Life is both entertaining and enlightening, though I suspect some will come away from this book either disliking Vonnegut and possibly questioning Shields’ motives. That would be a shame. There is a genius to Vonnegut’s work which transcends the turbulent era in which he wrote. Knowing the back-story helps to understand the writer he “pretended” to be.