And So It Goes
Kurt Vonnegut: A Life
Charles J. Shields
(Henry Holt)The message in And So It Goes is simple, and I will give it to you upfront. If you ever dreamed of being a writer, forget it. Go into hog farming, sell dope, study podiatry. But leave this writing business alone. A career in writing will envenom your spouse, estrange your children, destroy your friendships, alienate the neighbors ... and most of all, will ruin you: physically, socially, and psychologically.
Vonnegut was determined from the moment he reached the age of reason to become a writer. He had no need to go into this despicable profession: he was born rich. Yet he went ahead, churning out the stories, most pretty terrible, a form which has the technical name among the writing professionals: "potboilers."
If you need convincing, think of this: Cat's Cradle, everyone's favorite, was the toughest baby of them all. It baked in the oven for over ten years, drove his agent and friend Knox Burger to distraction, was a trauma for him and his family ... none of the seven children were ever allowed near his work room; their laughter could evoke towering rages. (If you want the truth about Vonnegut as a father, read The Eden Express, A Memoir of Insanity by Mark Vonnegut. Our reviewer pointed out that young man "has put together a remarkable portrait of a person going hippy and batty. So as not to give away his hand, the word schizophrenia doesn't appear until the very end of the book; thus we know it's a bit strange there on Farm, but we have no label to pin on it." Mark was Vonnegut's oldest son.)
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Shields has to wrestle with the paradox of writing a book about a man who wrote books, and the author's relationship to those books. Vonnegut was facile --- too facile for some of us --- but the puzzle remains: how do you write about a writer? The professional writing life ain't much fun, and when he wasn't smoking and drinking himself to death, Vonnegut was glued to his typewriter, so much so that the space-bar had a worn spot in the center where he had beaten it with his thumb so mercilessly for so many years.
The most fascinating chapters in his life are not growing up in a fancy house in Indianapolis where his mother went mad and his father and the rest of the family had to live on after her suicide. Nor is it the regurgitation of his early, mostly bad writings that appeared in high-school newspapers and the Cornell student newspaper, along with his less memorable stories from Argosy, The Saturday Evening Post, and Colliers.
The most powerful story of them all, the one that apparently he could never ever get right (although he tried countless times), came from Dresden, Germany --- February 13, 1945 --- when American and British bombers turned that great and beautiful medieval city into an ash-heap. Vonnegut was a prisoner-of-war there, and he and his fellow prisoners had survived by being herded into a slaughterhouse far underground. He told of the sounds from above of a city and its people being destroyed:
Giants stalked the earth above us. First came the soft murmur of their dancing on the outskirts, then the grumbling of their plodding towards us, and finally the ear-shattering crashes of their heels upon us.)
After the bombing it was the POW's job to clear the thousands and thousands of men, women, and children --- often mere babes --- from the bomb shelters, most of them baked into fearsome and grotesque postures.
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Vonnegut was a kid when he went to war, and he was a kid when he came back, although obviously branded by what he had experienced. As he said of a fellow prisoner who died of starvation in the German POW camp, "Life no longer made any sense ... It wasn't making any sense at all. So he didn't want to pretend he understood it anymore, which is more than the rest of us did. We pretended we understood it."
There are biographies that come to life because of the art of the biographer. David McCullough did it with John Adams and Lytton Strachey did it with all of his Eminent Victorians. There are, too, biographies that delight because of the character they depict ... like Boswell's life of the wonderfully crabby and erudite Samuel Johnson. Over the years, the reviewers in this magazine have been intrigued by strange, sometimes engaging characters portrayed in recent biographies such as Spiegel: The Man Behind the Pictures by Andrew Sinclair, Dean Acheson by James Chace, Karl Marx by Francis Wheen, Pied Piper: The Many Lives of Noah Greenberg by James Gollin ... and the recent surprise portrait of Sigmund Freud in The Anatomy of Addiction by Howard Markel. There are as well the mischievously named Autobiography of Joseph Stalin by Richard Lourie and, an all-time favorite, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein.
All these take a character, hold him or her up to the light, give us the pleasure of looking into their hearts, unseemly or not. Unfortunately, Shields' picture of Kurt Vonnegut just doesn't make the cut. There are some quick takes on the author that are delightful, such as this picture of him at the typewriter, where he had a habit "of crossing his legs and wiggling his foot as he read over a page aloud, using different voices for characters, and gesturing with his hands." There are some that are embarrassing, such as this from the class that he taught at the Iowa Writer's Workshop:
Someone made a reference to Keats.
"Keats?" asked Vonnegut. "Who's Keats?"
The students laughed, thinking it was a setup for a joke. They were catching onto his droll sense of humor. Then, suddenly, they realized he was serious.
"You know, Keats the poet ... John Keats." Silence.
He sighed, threw his book against the wall, and strode out into the hall.
Most of stories told here of the life and times of Kurt Vonnegut get rather windy, make one want to throw the book against the wall and stride out into the hall (or into the kitchen for a snack and a rest).
Critics have railed about the disconnect between Vonnegut --- the violent, shouting, short-tempered Vonnegut as portrayed by Shields --- and the goofy populist heroes that appear in novels like God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. But the comparison is absurd. Fiction writers are chronic liars. Any confusion between them and their characters is a delusion, produced by critics who don't know beans about the truth-shifting that must go into fiction.
Novelists know better. Perfidy. That's their craft and art. It's their middle name.--- Richard Saturday