Kurt Vonnegut deserves better

Christopher Buckley’s New York Times Book Review frontpage piece on And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields’ biography of Kurt Vonnegut, is as lazy a bit of evaluation as it’s possible to pick up a paycheck for. I can’t tell from it anything about Shields’ book, and nothing about Vonnegut’s many novels, either. (See “jazz” content at post’s end).

How does Buckley — whose comic novels I’ve enjoyed (esp. his first, The White House Mess) – – spend his 1500 words about a 500-page life of one of America’s best-selling fabulists of the late 20th century? He entertains us with what interests him. So we  learn in the lede  that the bio is “often hearthbreaking,” evidently because of Vonnegut’s human flaws, his “vexed” relations with women (such as the “hell on earth” — Buckley’s phrase — he shared in marriage with photographer Jill Krementz) and his attempt at suicide, perhaps in imitation of his mother (whose did indeed kill herself). We learn, too, that Vonnegut was sad, angry about the ways of the world (what satirist isn’t?) and resented being underrated by the literary elite but got rich off of actual book sales (sounds like a fair enough trade-off). We don’t find out what author Shields himself says about any of this in his long volume.

Berkeley neither tells nor shows us how Shields writes, explains why Vonnegut was read (and feted and influential) or describes the social context of the period of his greatest productivity. I hope Shields writes about that; as a reader, I’m  interested in an era that resulted in mainstream publication and public embrace of American satires and other serious, experimental, speculative, entertaining fictions by V., his pal Joseph Heller and also Pyncheon, Roth, Nabokov, Mailer, Coover, Burroughs, Brautigan, Algren, Phillip Dick, Hunter Thompson, Thomas Berger, Jerzy Kozinsky, Jerome Charyn, Ursula LeGuin, Grace Paley, Stanley Elkin, John Barth, Gore Vidal, Terry Southern, Donald Barthelme, Ishmael Reed, Chester Himes, James Purdy, Bruce Jay Friedman, Richard Condon, Tom Wolfe, arguably even such learned pundits as William F. Buckley, Jr.

It is this latter’s son, the reviewer Chris, who gets stuck on whether Kurt Vonnegut will matter forevermore (but doesn’t tell us if he thinks he should, only ties him to J.D. Salinger, relatively speaking a realist). One can only surmise Shields wrote a 500+page book because he thought his subject mattered.

I dig Vonnegut, having read most of his 14 novels from the dystopian Player Piano (1952, much indebted to Orwell and Huxley) through Timequake (1997), and I recommend the half dozen best of them highly.Vonnegut wrote clearly and directly, with a Midwestern-born sense of economy and understatement. He was comic and imaginative in a plainspoken style with an undercurrent of feeling — which might seem simple, but isn’t. Try to imitate his voice, his scruples about showing the worst sides of some protagonists and yet his compassion for ordinariness, his dry flights of fancy. In Sirens of Titan (1959) and Cat’s Cradle (1963) he is hilariously ironic and unblinkingly pessimistic, deeply fatalistic and soaringly fantastical. I get continued pleasure from both those novels.

Mother Night I haven’t read for quite a while but recall for its daringly dark yet sympathetic character creation. God Bless You Mr. Rosewater also sticks in my mind as an unpredictable story about mixed-up morality.

Personally I find Slaughterhouse Five more sentimental and obvious than any of these early works, but I guess to many readers it seems most heart-felt, and it is no doubt earnest — the fire-bombing of Dresden is a searing episode. Of V’s later works, I thought Breakfast of Champions troubling, skipped Slapstick, remember little of Jailbird and avoided Deadeye Dick. Galapagos was diverting, Bluebeard mystifying and Hocus Pocus not very memorable, but I am firmly in favor of Timequake. To me Vonnegut’s summing up joins Heller’s Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man and Charles Bukowski’s Pulp as the finest, funniest recapitulations of careers writing fiction I’ve read.

I’ve met Vonnegut’s daughter Edie, and like her paintings of Domestic Goddesses,  and once met the man himself. I was standing behind him in a line for food after a preview showing of Robert Altman’s Kansas City. I introduced myself as a fan, and answered his question about what I do as “write about jazz.” Vonnegut, whom I remember looking sort of hang-dog, said he had played clarinet, and loved jazz. He added that he had tried to introduce the music to high school students while he was teaching at a high school in Cape Cod, but couldn’t get them interested.

I said I knew of only one bit of writing about music in his novels, one of my favorite scenes: When space traveller Malachi Constant finds himself stuck for an indeterminable amount of time in the caves of Mercury, he takes solace from the beautiful songs, light patterns and messages (“I am here, I am here, I am here” and “So glad you are, so glad you are, so glad you are”) of the harmoniums. Vonnegut seemed pleased I could quote that.

I haven’t read Shields’ bio, and might not, but it and Kurt Vonnegut, too, deserve better from the Times than being tossed off as topics rather beneath the reviewer’s engagement.


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    • says

      I think I shall do so, and revisit a couple of the others. I like Kurt’s short stories, too, and his radio reports from the Afterlife. Maybe Christopher Buckley, born to Boston Brahmins, just doesn’t get Kurt’s everyman sense of humor/despair.

      • says

        I also like Slapstick, although Vonnegut and reviewers gave it a poor rating. I love Welcome to the Monkey House and Cat’s Cradle. As far as the new biography and the reviews go, I think you are really on to something when you suggest people may not understand Kurt’s everyman sense of humor/despair. His best friend Sidney Offit is rarely consulted by writers and reviewers but he can tell you what a great man Vonnegut was.
        Thanks for writing this.

        • says

          thanks Julia — I’d like to visit that Vonnegut Library. The midwestern homes of our humorists — like Thurber House in Columbus — remind us of the normalcy which gives rise to our laughs. I like Kurt’s short stories and occasional pieces, too. His themes regarding economic inequalities and justice, personal responsibility vs. societal trends, self-created environmental disaster and humans’ will-to-make-a-difference loom large today.

  1. Brian Hope says

    Have already commented on Twitter but like you, I would like to nail my colours to the mast. I’ve read them all and have kept most of them through thick and thin of house moves etc. over the years. Let the Buckley boy write something that will make readers want to do the same. So it goes.

  2. Perry Tannenbaum says

    You’ll find another great musical passage in Cat’s Cradle about the crazed clarinet-playing Angela Honekker. I used to hand out the whole chapter to my writing classes during my teaching assistant days, so there are probably a couple of Western Washington State University graduates who remember it , too. It also has a marvelous ending after Angela’s extraordinary performance. Somebody didn’t return my treasured copy of Cat’s Cradle, so I can’t quote it precisely, but the narrator exclaims: “Life!! Who can even begin to understand one single minute of it??!” To which he gets the laconic answer: “Don’t even try.” Or something to that effect. Worth tracking down.

  3. Jerome says

    Buckley’s reviews is one of the most puzzling and maddening I’ve ever read. It’s so obviously full of pure personal opinion that I’ve never heard anyone share concerning Vonnegut that I really have a hard time seeing why it was published. Most strange, for me, is Buckley’s inisitence that Vonnegut is a “children’s author” (I gather he means “adolescent”). The end of Buckley’s article was just inexcusable–Slaughterhouse Five reminds him of Catcher in the Rye, a book for children, plus people (supposedly) first read Slaughterhouse Five when they’re in high school, so this all means that Vonnegut is also a children’s author? I’d like to see Buckley in handcuffs for such idiocy.

    • says

      Jerome, time for a citizens’ arrest. Adolescents read Vonnegut as do adults — his themes, topics and characters are certainly adult, and “children” won’t get much from his books, so I agree with you: Buckley’s either ignoring, missing or blowing smoke on the primary issues re Vonnegut’s work. But take heart: Stevenson, Kipling, Twain and Wells were tarred with the same faint praise (Salinger, too — Catcher is about an adolescent, not any more for adolescents than To Kill A Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn). Anyway, isn’t it nice to remember when young adults bought fiction about something other than vampires? Wouldn’t Christopher Buckley love to generate that reaction?