I just finished Charles J. Shields's gripping, inspiring, sensitive biography of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, a book that brings me back to my earliest days as a serious reader of semi-serious fiction. Kurt Vonnegut wasn't the first grown-up writer I ever read, but his Breakfast of Champions was probably the first novel I ever related to on adult terms. I sensed that I was crossing some line when I read this book at the age of 12, and I remember feeling myself transformed by the act of declaring to the world that Kurt Vonnegut was my favorite writer (as he would remain through my high school years). I guess he was my first literary role model.
I admired his message and also his pop/expressionist aesthetic, which is neatly encapsulated by the ultra-cool cover designs for the 1970s-era editions of his paperbacks. I collected these Vonnegut books like baseball cards, though I only liked about half of them. I favored Welcome to the Monkey House, Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, but Breakfast of Champions remained my favorite, not only because it was the first Vonnegut book I read but also because it was the most far out book he ever wrote. This was the one he drew pictures in, the one in which he invented a doppelganger for himself (the beautiful creation called Kilgore Trout) and then walked into the novel himself (as Kurt Vonnegut) to hang out with his own doppelganger. I remember feeling a big grin on my pre-teenage face when I read that chapter of Breakfast of Champions for the first time: is he allowed to do that? Apparently he was allowed to do that.
Vonnegut's literary reputation took a big beating during the the years that I began reading him, the years between Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick. Slapstick was the novel in which he most completely jumped the shark. (Interestingly, this novel came out in the mid-1970s, the years when Fonzie literally jumped the shark). The fable of a post-apocalyptic America contained far-ranging ideas, but the grotesque imagery and ripe prose seemed to amount to Vonnegut "doing Vonnegut" one time too many. This was his first novel to get devastatingly and universally bad reviews, and Shields's biography shows how this experience spooked and discouraged him.
As a teenage reader when Slapstick came out, I could feel the book's palpable flaws, and in fact it was the last Vonnegut book I read until many years later. I could tell that something had gone wrong, that Vonnegut no longer seemed to point the way for me. Strangely, I found myself thinking of Slapstick often later, years after forgetting about it in the late 1970s. I remember noticing that its story of a brother/sister pair who feel cosmically connected was echoed in Vonnegut's protege John Irving's more successful novel The Hotel New Hampshire. Most importantly, Slapstick is the Vonnegut book that best expresses his most optimistic and forward-thinking idea: that human beings have a natural craving for community (the book's subtitle is "Lonesome No More!") that drives and motivates them in powerful ways they do not understand. In Slapstick, the post-nuclear society clings to humanity by forming artificial families, with poignant results. The theme of humanity's primal urge towards community, which is as central to Vonnegut's work as his theme of the simple depravity of war, recalls Carl Jung and Robert Bly and is an idea I'm particularly interested in myself.
Vonnegut was a social philosopher, a preacher of kindness and neighborly values who believed that any family, even an artificial family, was better for mental health than isolation. One of the key surprises in Charles Shields's biography is that Vonnegut sometimes had a rocky standing within his own large family, though this may have mainly been because his first wife Jane was so sweet and generous that every single member of the family liked her better than him. Kurt eventually divorced her, which didn't help his case at home. His tendency towards depression and crankiness didn't help at home either.
Still, he was clearly a loving if flawed father, and a friend to many around the world. Vonnegut's son Mark Vonnegut has lodged a complaint about the biography's emphasis on the author's flaws, and he expresses his case well, though I am glad Shields wrote the book he wrote (a biography that pleases a dead author's family too well might not be very much fun to read). Meanwhile, if Mark Vonnegut is mad about And So It Goes, we can only imagine how Kurt's last wife Jill Krementz feels, since the biography makes her out to be a veritable Cruella de Vil. (Shields may go too far here in portraying Kurt as his Jill's helpless victim; Kurt's own writings show him to be a master of the art of passive aggression, and we can only imagine that he could have held his own against any forceful spouse, and then some.)
And So It Goes will send many readers scurrying back to their crusty old Vonnegut paperbacks, as it did for me. My one complaint about the book is that it moves too quickly through Vonnegut's World War II years, when he was taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, and then survived the firebombing of Dresden. Perhaps Shields thought these stories had already been told too many times (primarily by Vonnegut himself), but stories like these can never be told too many times.
The biographer delivers more thoroughly on Vonnegut's decades as a hopeful, hardworking wannabe writer, and many future writers will be inspired by Vonnegut's stubborn drive to succeed. Like Dr. Seuss, Vonnegut originally discovered his writing potential at a school newspaper, and later participated as both a student or a teacher in many writing programs. Critics often complained that his cozy writing style was too easy, too self-indulgent, but Shields's biography makes it clear that Vonnegut had to work extremely hard, and challenge himself constantly, to write books that seemed easy.
I'm proud to see my name included in the acknowledgments section of And So It Goes. I'd shared with Charles J. Shields my recollection of the three times I ran into Kurt Vonnegut in real life, including his speaking appearance at my college (the State University of New York at Albany, where his brother Bernard Vonnegut was a professor; I watched the two elderly brothers greet each other stiffly after the event) and two chance walk-bys in Manhattan, one in a supermarket where Kurt was buying a bottle of Tom Collins mixer, and one on Second Avenue near the 40s during which, I noted to Shields, "he looked noticeably sad". Even though I observed this sadness myself, I am not sure I agree with recent coverage of Shields's book that highlights the fact that "Kurt Vonnegut died a bitter man who kept thinking he was a failure. It's not this writer's life but the human condition itself, I think, that is sometimes overwhelmingly sad. Kurt Vonnegut, as far as I can tell, died a highly aware man who kept thinking he was a writer.