I just finished Charles Shield’s biography of Kurt Vonnegut: And So it Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life largely on the strength of Christopher Buckley’s review in a recent New York Times Sunday Book Review.
I’ve read most of Vonnegut’s novels, but wouldn’t necessarily put anything other than Slaughterhouse 5 on a list of must-read literature. Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater: I read them, enjoyed some, didn’t enjoy others, but would not rank Vonnegut among my favorite authors of the late 20th century’s post-modernist school.
I’m not a big fan of literary biographies because they tend to be so predictable in their accounts of misfit personas, alcohol consumption, failed marriages, alienated children, ambiguous sexual preferences, and the simple bleak fact that most authors go quietly insane over the course of their lifetimes thanks to sitting alone for hours at a time at their typewriters. Dysfunction sells books. Normalcy does not. Read enough literary biographies and you’ll come to believe that all authors are miserable human beings, and other than some rubbernecking urge to watch them self-destruct, there is little in their lives that is commendable. Any biography of Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hunter S., Jack Kerouac, Hemingway usually is a catalog of misfit urges and terrible behavior.
Vonnegut smoked too much, drank too much, divorced his wife after 30 years of marriage, and was petulant when reviewers trashed his work. He fooled around, screwed over his agents and publishers, and preened a little in the 1970s as a modern Mark Twain after Slaughterhouse made him rich and famous. He was also fairly prolific, wrote some good novels, was a hero to the counterculture and very much a man of his time. That he died old and unhappy – well, I would argue happy 84-year olds are fewer than ill and unhappy ones.
Although Shields enjoyed “official” status and access to Vonnegut in the writer’s final months, Mark Vonnegut wrote one reviewer to assassinate Shield’s account as a fabrication:
“I’m happy to reassure you that Kurt did not die a bitter man who kept thinking he was a failure.
Charles Shields spent very little time with a much diminished 84 year old who right up to the end showed more flashes of brilliance and warmth than most. There’s a ton of evidence, including his art and writing that he fought hard and largely succeeded to overcome PTSD from WWII and a quirky, but not altogether unloving childhood to have mostly loving and supportive relationships with his siblings and children and even his allegedly distant father. Shields had to ignore most of what I and other people who knew Kurt and most of what he read in the letters to come up with these shocking truths about a beloved writer.
It’s too good a bit to go away, but Kurt had next to no interest in investments or expensive things and never bought Dow stock.
Why don’t people employ a modicum of critical thinking before buying into the truth of a book whose existence is completely and utterly dependent on a picture that Shields would have made up out of whole cloth if he had to. Not a perfect man or father and I’ll grant you two failed marriages.
My best regards to someone whose affection and respect for my father shines on.”
I met Vonnegut in the late 1990s at a big Forbes event. He was quite avuncular and we sp0ke a few minutes about life in Barnstable Village here on Cape Cod in the 50s through the 70s. Vonnegut moved to Osterville in the early 50’s, rented an office over the Osterville Package Store on Wianno Ave., mentions Cotuit Bay as the place where Eliot Rosewater’s mother died in a boating accident (aboard a Cotuit Skiff I like to imagine), and then moved to the northside, to Scudder Lane in Barnstable Village where his wife Jane raised their three children and his late sister’s four.
Vonnegut owned the first Saab dealership in the U.S. — which failed — but when I drove a 900 purchased from Hyannis Saab I always liked to think it had some psychic connection to Kurt.
Vonnegut bailed on Cape Cod in the 70s, shacked up with the photographer Jill Krementz (whom he eventually married), bought a townhouse on West 48th Street, and then a place in the Hamptons — transforming him from a “Cape Cod Writer” (of which there are very few) to a classic New York Literary Luminary. He made some returns to Barnstable, but never called it home again after leaving.
His books were popular with my parents and their friends in the late 60s and 70s, and I recall the excitement whenever a new Vonnegut novel was published. Again, they didn’t do as much for me as Barth, Pynchon, and Heller. All of whom faded when the new realism emerged in the late 70s with Raymond Carver and his ilk.
As for the biography, well, if you want to get a little depressed, then by all means, go right ahead. If you’re a writer looking for some profound life’s lesson, then it comes down to this the guy worked his ass off and found success when he figured out how to tell the story of how he survived the fire bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war. Other than that — it’s petty stuff.