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REVIEWING

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life

by Charles J. Shields


Henry Holt | 513 pages | $34.50

Reviewed by Sarah Vogelsong


author

What do you do when you find out that the author of one of the greatest works of American literature ever written was an asshole?

It’s a disorienting experience, one not so far from a storyline Vonnegut himself might have written: Everyman reader discovers that the Great Author in the sky is either ignoring his own system of morality, or else willfully subverting it. But what can you do? You can’t change another man’s life. We might as well just shrug along with Billy Pilgrim and Vonnegut’s pantheon of confused men and say to ourselves: “So it goes.”

I suspect that Charles Shields was driven to the same conclusion in writing this first major biography of Kurt Vonnegut. As close to an authorized biography that we will ever get—Vonnegut sanctioned the project, met with the author twice, and then died abruptly after becoming tangled in his dog’s leash and falling down his front stairs one icy morning in April 2007.

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life moves from a tone of near veneration for “one of the most-influential writers of the twentieth century” to bemusement, and then almost hurt. How could a man who so famously implored the human race, “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind” have been so very unkind?

Of course, as Shields makes clear, Vonnegut’s life was no cakewalk. Born into a wealthy Indianapolis family on Armistice Day 1922, Vonnegut faced a distant father, an emotionally unstable mother, and an older brother Bernard whose scientific brilliance overshadowed the younger boy’s talents. When the family suffered financial losses during the Depression, the sudden slide toward the middle class precipitated a nervous breakdown for Edith Vonnegut from which she never recovered. On Mother’s Day 1944, she committed suicide, only hours before Vonnegut arrived home on leave.

Shields’ detailed account of the author’s childhood deftly reveals not only the roots of his insecurity and yearning for community, but also, disturbingly, the huge wellspring of anger that lay within him. The liquid seam of bitterness that always runs beneath the surface of Vonnegut’s literature without ever exploding into a full geyser of fury is often attributed to the author’s horrific experiences during World War II, but Shields’ biography indicates other currents at work as well.

The sections of And So It Goes that examine Vonnegut’s wartime experiences are some of the most fascinating of the book, and the included photos of Vonnegut in a POW camp and a Dresden basement filled with asphyxiated bodies after the firebombing of the city, pack a heavy accompanying punch. Although the biography shies away from sophisticated literary analysis, Shields carefully tracks the development of Slaughterhouse-Five from Vonnegut’s lived experience, through the fifteen years that it took the author to write his story.

But the Vonnegut of Slaughterhouse-Five, however sincere and powerful, is also an image that the author himself, ever the consummate PR man, took care to cultivate. The Vonnegut of private life was a different man entirely, distant, capable of enormous cruelty, and, in Shields’ eyes, a “reluctant adult.”

This second Vonnegut’s betrayals of those who were nearest and dearest to him are difficult to read. His treatment of his wife Jane is particularly painful and often verges on emotional abuse. Similarly, it is hard to accept his behavior towards his longtime editor and semi-agent, Cornell classmate Knox Burger, who supported the author from the early days when Vonnegut was still struggling to place short stories in the slicks.

Shields drops the suggestion that Vonnegut’s dual personality and often inexplicably hurtful actions might have stemmed from posttraumatic stress disorder, but never fleshes out the idea, which is unfortunate.

Jim Adams, Vonnegut’s nephew who was raised by Kurt and Jane after his parents’ untimely deaths in 1958, concluded, “I think he admired the idea of love, community, and family from a distance, but couldn’t deal with the complicated emotional elements they included.”

Ironically, although Vonnegut never ceased to lament his parents’ lack of emotional support, he himself was an often cold and selfish parent.

Ultimately, it is difficult to walk away from And So It Goes without a profound feeling of disillusionment. Nor could I fall back on the idea that Shields had an axe to grind—his admiration of Vonnegut’s work is obvious, and his research for the biography prodigious. Notes and bibliographic material consume almost 75 pages, and although forbidden by Vonnegut’s son Mark to directly quote the contents of 258 letters, he carefully weaves their paraphrased content into his narrative.

So we’re left with that initial conundrum: what do you do if one of your literary touchstones turns out to be an asshole? This problem might be easier to grapple with were Vonnegut not such a moralistic writer (with, Shields argues, a surprisingly conventional system of morality), conceiving the universe as irrational and cruel and human beings as either good and bumbling, or evil. In light of this black-and-white outlook, it becomes difficult to accept Vonnegut’s moral admonitions—“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind!”—when his morality was often so very flawed or seems completely absent.

           

But at least we have his books. And in Vonnegut’s own words:” Whatever. So it goes.”



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