Charles Shields’s thoroughly researched, comprehensive biography of Kurt Vonnegut is the second one of this fall to deal with the life and work of a major literary figure of the postwar era. It’s a worthy companion to Tracy Daugherty’s study of Joseph Heller, JUST ONE CATCH, in no small part because of the striking parallels between the lives of these two veterans of World War II who became unlikely heroes of the Baby Boom Generation.
"[Vonnegut] has been given the tribute of a serious and respectful biography."
Vonnegut’s story is one of a writer who labored well into middle age before achieving any measure of literary recognition. For many years, amid jobs that included public relations work for General Electric at its Schenectady, New York plant (a place where his brother Bernard earned a reputation as an eminent scientist), and even a brief fling at running a Saab dealership on Cape Cod, Vonnegut cranked out fiction for magazines like Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post, reliable, if déclassé, outlets for short stories in the ’50s and ’60s. “Stories in the slicks helped pay the bills, Shields writes, “but he couldn’t seem to rise above the status of a ham-and-egger as an author.” His early novels like PLAYER PIANO and THE SIRENS OF TITAN were consigned to the science fiction genre, and his third novel, MOTHER NIGHT, was published as a paperback original, destined to be sold in bus stations and drug stores.
It wasn’t until Vonnegut took a writer-in-residence position at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that he began to gain some measure of acceptance in the literary world. Teaching alongside skilled craftsmen like Richard Yates and the post-modernist Robert Coover, Vonnegut quickly became a popular lecturer, numbering writers like John Irving and Gail Godwin among his students. While there, he embarked on a relationship with one of them, Loree Lee Wilson Rackstraw, that would continue intermittently for the rest of his life. And his time in Iowa provided the space he needed to devote substantial attention to SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE, a work he’d grappled with for more than 20 years.
Like Joseph Heller, who became a lifelong friend of Vonnegut after they met in 1968, Vonnegut’s literary reputation rests on that single compelling novel. Taking as its point of departure (from which it then departs dramatically) Vonnegut’s experience as a prisoner of war who survived the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE features what Shields calls a “strange narrative topology” where “recurrence becomes not just a device but also a theme.” In Shields’s view, Vonnegut “linked the World War II generation to the current one mired in the conflict in Southeast Asia,” a fact that accounts for the novel’s extraordinary popularity at the time of its publication in 1969, and that has raised it to the status of a contemporary classic.
Approaching 50, Vonnegut (like Heller at a slightly earlier age) was catapulted into the stratosphere of literary celebrity, and he achieved a degree of financial success that would have seemed unimaginable to the former struggling short story journeyman. But that same popularity gave rise to a persona onto whom readers were only too eager to project their personal visions, something Vonnegut did little to discourage. It’s here that Shields does a most effective job, exposing the gap between Vonnegut’s whimsical, eccentric literary image and the reality of his personal life. He reveals, among other things, the hypocrisy of an author who became a darling of the antiwar movement while dabbling in the stocks of companies like Dow Chemical that provided support for a war he denounced. As Vonnegut began to inject himself even more explicitly into his later fiction, these problems only grew more troublesome.
In this account, Vonnegut was anything but an ideal family man. Though Shields alludes several times to problems with alcohol, Vonnegut never seemed to pursue his drinking with the level of self-destructiveness displayed by contemporaries like Richard Yates and John Cheever. In his depiction of Vonnegut’s wives, Shields clearly takes sides. Jane Cox, to whom Vonnegut was married for some 35 years, appears as a decent, almost saintly woman who held the household together (including taking in four of Vonnegut’s nephews when their parents died) and allowed him, above everything, the freedom to write. The photojournalist Jill Krementz, 18 years Vonnegut’s junior, whom he married in 1979, comes off as a vicious harpy, who saw marriage as a wise career move and who did everything in her power to wall her husband off from friends and family.
A sense of sadness pervades the biography's final chapter --- "Waiting to Die" --- a melancholy chronicle of the final 15 years of Vonnegut's life. While his celebrity never dimmed, his creative powers slowly withered, lifelong friends and family passed on and his life with Krementz was marked by discord, near divorce and a frosty reconciliation. In a highly-publicized incident, he accidentally set fire to a wastebasket, damaging the study of his Manhattan brownstone. As we watch him wander through those final years, there’s the clear sense of a man who feels he has lived long past his time.
Charles Shields writes that Vonnegut, always sensitive to his literary reputation, “wanted assurance that his works would occupy a permanent, honorable place on bookshelves and libraries.” Given the vagaries of posthumous recognition, it’s impossible to know whether he will be granted that wish, but at least here he has been given the tribute of a serious and respectful biography.