Book Review: And So It Goes (Kurt Vonnegut: A Life) by Charles J. Shields

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Vonnegut is one of the authors I’ve put aside for years because the temptation to copy his style is too great. Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle would certainly make my Top 100 books list if I had one. There are few modern writers who have created more memorable lines, from brilliant socio-cultural observations (“History! Read it and weep!”) to simple human experience (“then every cell in Billy’s body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause”).

While I was delighted to hear that Mr. Shields had published a biography of this very influential writer, I was initially dissuaded from pursuing interest after reading Christopher Buckley’s review in the Sunday Book Review section of the New York Times, which described a “sad, and often heartbreaking biography.” Fortunately, I received it as a Christmas gift and my fundamental interest in Vonnegut overcame my reluctance to take on anything gloomy.

I think Janet Maslin’s review reflects my reading experience more accurately than Mr. Buckley’s. What Ms. Maslin and I read was a well-paced and structured narrative attempting to describe an enormously complicated and contradictory man. While there are certainly aspects of his life that would clearly qualify as tragic, Mr. Shields has compiled a compelling, cohesive and balanced narrative that weaves together tragedies and triumphs to give the reader a satisfying,  complete picture of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Yes, he alienated his wife, most of his children, a good part of his family and numerous friends—but he was also capable of passionate love, strong commitment and unqualified friendship. Yes, he produced piles of forgettable stories for the mainstream magazine market and some very bad novels—but he also gave us one of the great American novels in Slaughterhouse-Five. The man was a fundamental contradiction, something that I believe made his writing that much stronger.

While Mr. Shields gives detailed accounts of his relationships with his wives, children and lovers, I found the passages dealing with writing to be more dramatic and engaging. The author chronicles in varying degrees of detail the development, publication and reception of each of the novels, giving the greatest amount of attention to Slaughterhouse-Five. I found it amazing that a book that reads like it wrote itself was instead the product of years of struggle against writer’s block, which disappeared only when Vonnegut returned to Dresden and failed to find what he thought he needed to write the novel. Vonnegut went there to collect details and background on what he missed by waiting out the great firestorm in a cellar (about which he felt absurd guilt). Instead, he returned to a place that bore little resemblance to what he had experienced, which forced him to realize that he had to make a significant detour from the path he believed he had to take. Much to his credit, he literally went with the moment, discovering that time itself is the overriding influence on meaning. It was almost as if something inside him reached out and grabbed him by the ears and shouted, “Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

As a struggling writer (aren’t we all?), I was encouraged by the fact that Vonnegut considered himself a failure during much of his early career, bemoaning the fact that one of his early novels “only” sold 6,000 copies, a figure that a self-published author would die for. Even to the end, he complains that he doesn’t have the status of a Kerouac. These are the parts of the book that “rang true” (pun intended)  for me, confirming that the author’s job is to write the best book he or she can write and realize up front that the reading public may not be in sync with what you have created. Times change, tastes shift, and fame comes with its own form of baggage, as Vonnegut learned during the long, dry period following the success of Slaughterhouse-Five.

The downsides of the book, as Ms. Maslin as pointed out, are that the author did not get to spend much time with Vonnegut before his death and was denied permission to quote from Vonnegut’s letters. I also would have liked it better had Mr. Shields devoted more attention to the development of Vonnegut’s alter-ego, Kilgore Trout. That said, And So It Goes is a fascinating, readable story of a living paradox, a strange concoction of fire and ice, a writer who lived beyond his time . . . in more ways than one.

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