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New Vonnegut biography: Not the Kurt we know

Kurt Vonnegut enthusiasts now have a full-length biography of one of America's most important, albeit controversial 20th century authors: And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life. Charles Shields' rendering of Vonnegut's personal and literary battles, told in the words of those who knew him best — wives (two), lovers (more than we might have imagined), children (six), close friends and publishers — underscores the strikingly autobiographical nature of Vonnegut's work.

The author's life and fiction are so intimately aligned that, as Shields notes, Vonnegut is eventually unable to tell the difference between what has really happened in his life and what hasn't. Understanding this, Vonnegut declares, "I am a work of fiction." Inserting himself directly into his novel Breakfast of Champions, he announces, "The big show is inside my own head."

Shields begins with the story of how he knew Vonnegut wanted a biography and how he convinced Vonnegut that he, Shields, was a "damn good researcher and writer," and "the guy for the job." Shields' promotion of himself as a good writer holds up; his prose is fluid and smooth. His research is more problematic, short-circuited by Vonnegut's death in 2007 before they had much chance to talk, forcing Shields to make judgments based on the sometimes unreliable second-hand information and stilted insights of others.

On the one hand, fans and scholars may welcome Shields' fuller account of the personal calamities that shape the fiction, particularly the pessimism with which Vonnegut struggled his entire life: his difficult childhood with emotionally distant, unhappy parents; the family's precipitous fall in society; his mother's suicide on Mother's Day in 1944, presaging the plethora of morbid, crazy and suicidal mothers in Vonnegut's fiction; his internment as a prisoner of war in Dresden during World War II; his battles with depression and alcoholism; his own attempted suicide; the tragic deaths of his beloved sister Alice from cancer and her husband three days later in a bizarre train wreck; his son Mark's schizophrenia; and his lifelong struggles for acceptance as a major writer.

Years of raising his son and two daughters, along with his sister's three boys, in a crowded, often embattled household, at a time when Vonnegut was trying hardest to establish himself as a mainstream writer, still "an odd-jobber in his mid 40s," was especially emotionally trying. The constant strain created such friction in his marriage to his college sweetheart, Jane Cook, heightened by Vonnegut's wandering eye, that despite her unflagging, even heroic support over their 25 years together, mutual frustration and heartbreak doomed their marriage.

Vonnegut's later marriage to New York photographer Jill Krementz seemed ill-conceived from the start. An obvious model for the tough, demanding and highly sexual heroine of his novel Bluebeard, whom the protagonist interestingly calls "mother," Jill is depicted as having a vituperative and jealous nature that somewhat recalls Zelda Fitzgerald. The deepest, most steadfast female influence throughout Vonnegut's adult life, the woman with whom he seems always to have been at ease and truly happy, was his former student, Loree Rackstraw.

We know the importance of the 1945 firebombing of Dresden in Vonnegut's work from its repeated presence and from the autobiographical first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, and Shields' strongest moment comes in his detailed description of the city's wanton destruction and the brutal, dehumanizing conditions of Vonnegut's imprisonment. It deepens our understanding of how the event traumatized him to the point that it took many years before he could write about it.

Years later, returning with his lifelong war buddy Bernard O'Hare, Vonnegut was further dismayed to find the former cultural capital of Europe fouled with greasy exhaust and stained facades, still virtually a city in ruins: "It was as though a woman reputedly the most beautiful in Europe turned out to be an old hag wrapped in rags, with a cigarette dangling from her mouth."

Shields is right to stress what he calls the "disconnects" in Vonnegut's character: Vonnegut as a Christ-worshiping agnostic; as a devoted humanist but cynical existentialist; as a natural comic talent who sells millions of books but who generally felt shy, lonely and unappreciated; as a writer whose motto was "Goddamn it, you've got to be kind," promoting human decency at every opportunity, yet as a father, husband and friend capable of rage and emotional abuse.

Whatever Shields' intentions, the problem is that despite his occasional acknowledgments of Vonnegut's creative genius, the author emerges from these pages disingenuous, small-minded and mean, envious of his older brother, emotionally unavailable to his children, never sufficiently aware and appreciative of his first wife's sacrifices to his career and, most disconcerting of all to readers who treasure Vonnegut as a champion of moral and ethical causes, a writer whose inspirational humanism appears more contrived than genuine, preoccupied with commercial success and public approval.

Finding creative ways to transform painful contradictions into artistic vision was Vonnegut's forte. Yet rather than explaining how such contradictory identities feed and shape Vonnegut's powerful creativity, accounting for the rich complexity beneath the playful, ironic surfaces of Vonnegut's work, Shields fails to separate himself from the morass of superficial, misinformed readings with which Vonnegut struggled for his entire career. Shields fails to understand that it is precisely the honesty and courage with which Vonnegut uses his fiction to probe sins against himself and others, particularly his inadequacies as a husband and father, that his work is most about.

Most troubling of all, insisting that Vonnegut is "implacably, depressingly deterministic," Shields misses the intensely psychological nature of Vonnegut's fiction: a dialectical struggle between hope and despair that warns against fatalism rather than confirms such a philosophy. Like his great satirist forbearers, Swift, Voltaire and Twain, Vonnegut had no illusions that he lived in a moral universe, but he was steadfast in pursuing one. Such a misreading of Vonnegut's world view makes Shields' analyses of individual texts unreliable at best.

Shields' occasional glimpses of Vonnegut's creative versatility are worthwhile, such as the extent to which the author involved himself in artistic projects other than writing — furniture building, decorating, painting and drawing, or the early interest in playwriting and direction that earned him a considerable reputation in local New England theatre. But the fact is that the writer who had been disappointed so often by uncomprehending and often hostile readings of his work would have been woefully disappointed again.

For a more just understanding of what Kurt Vonnegut's richly paradoxical mind and work were mainly about — the Vonnegut who "celebrates the beauty of creative potential in humanity even as he mourns the mistakes and betrayals that block it" — I recommend Rackstraw's Love Always, Kurt Vonnegut As I Knew Him (Da Capo Press, 2009).

Lawrence R. Broer is a professor emeritus of English at the University of South Florida and the author or editor of nine books, the most recent of which is "Vonnegut and Hemingway: Writers at War."

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life

By Charles J. Shields

Henry Holt, 528 pages, $30

New Vonnegut biography: Not the Kurt we know 02/25/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 25, 2012 3:30am]
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