And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life is riveting. Biographer Charles J. Shields shows all sides of Kurt Vonnegut, not only compassion but criticism. Shields writes, "The sense of humor in the Vonnegut house was schadenfreude. Germanic. Taking pleasure in others' misfortunes. Listening one afternoon to Act Four of Aida, Kurt Sr. remarked in a bemused voice that the lovers sealed in a temple would last a lot longer if they didn't sing so much." Pratfalls became a joke and if someone had fallen down the stairs, a family member rushed to make fun of him.
Towards his children, Kurt Sr. was cold. Listening to Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen and Laurel and Hardy on the radio, Kurt Jr. received his first lessons in writing. Vonnegut credited his mother for uncovering his interest literature, but believed he had inherited his father's talent. His mother tried to make a living writing for magazines, but could not whereas his father's letters revealed genuine talent as a writer.
Shields writes with keen awareness to the origin of Kurt's desire to become a writer. "Edith Vonnegut wanted to be a writer living on Cape Cod where her family had spent halcyon weeks in the summer. As a retributive act, a gift to her spirit, he might one day try to do the same thing." Thus Shields reveals how the writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was born. And though Vonnegut was emotionally in conflict with his mother, his love for her won out and created our beloved wordsmith.
The quality of Shields' writing is oddly enough a bit like Vonnegut's -- simple sentences and direct. His description is sparse, but painterly. About Vonnegut's mother Shields writes, "A red-haired American heiress illuminating the social season in Edwardian London." Edith Vonnegut was a beauty and in high school Vonnegut tasted his mother's drink. "Alcohol and cigarettes, two means of self-medicating his high and low mood swings, became addictions Kurt Jr. would never be able to shake," Shields writes, pinpointing the origin of Vonnegut's obsession with alcohol and wants the reader to understand the function alcohol had for Vonnegut without judging him.
Shields observes how Vonnegut blamed his mother and gave a pass to his father for Vonnegut's deep seated anger.
Vonnegut says, "The hatred my mother sprayed on my father, a gentle man, was without limit. She was addicted to being rich." Vonnegut realized he was being raised to become bourgeois. (Years later when he lectured at Oxford, he flew the Concorde, enjoying champagne and caviar.) "When the Vonneguts lost their fortune, Edith roamed the house wrapped in a ghostly drug induced mist." Shields' writing is vivid and haunting.
To get away from home, Kurt wanted to be a newspaperman. At the Indianapolis Star he was known for "clarity, economy." At Cornell, he wrote for The Sun.
In 1945 Vonnegut married Jane Cox, his childhood sweetheart. Her family belonged to the Vonnegut's social set. Shields links Vonnegut's attraction to Jane Cox to his formative years. A Phi Beta Kappa from Swarthmore College, Jane Cox became Kurt's editor for 34 years and thus a mother figure. Kurt quit Cornell and enlisted in the army. Jane gave birth to Edith, Nanny and Mark and when Kurt's sister, Alice, died of cancer, Jane and Kurt adopted four of her children.
In 1951, on Cape Cod Vonnegut met Norman Mailer. "Mailer was my age (27) -- a college- educated infantry private and a world figure because of his Great War novel," Kurt says. Vonnegut knew he had a big book in him -- he had lived through the bombing of Dresden.
I could not put this book down until I came to the chapter on Slaughterhouse Five. When it made number one on the New York Times, daughter Edie called it the Big Ka-boom.
Kurt's struggles as a freelance writer, PR man for G.E., professor at Iowa State and Harvard, intimidated husband and father of seven, survivor of the bombing as well as his mother's suicide on Mother's Day are riveting, but how did he sustain his drive to write at least 16 books?
Shields makes the point that Vonnegut had faith. Perseverance.
Haunted by unfriendly critics, he believed they were just snobs. It was true he hadn't made a systematic study of literature and he had never made a secret of getting his start writing for the glossies. Because Vonnegut wasn't of their ilk and didn't belong to the literati, he felt they wanted him "squashed like a bug," Shields writes.
But Vonnegut fooled his critics into thinking he was the Lady Gaga of American literature "by being a practitioner of what Freud calls 'the tendentious joke.'" This defies authority, but by inviting the reader into the joke, Vonnegut creates an alliance. In Breakfast of Champions he substituted a sketch, of an anus (his, he said) for his signature. He was an asshole, he explained; however "being an asshole was a human condition."
Shields makes sure Vonnegut's courage shines through. Vonnegut used self-doubt as fodder for his muse for his books which he grades in Palm Sunday. He gave Welcome to the Monkey House a B-minus. He honored Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle with an A-plus and Slapstick and Wanda June a D. However, Shields does not hide Vonnegut's cruel side. Vonnegut betrayed his first agent Knox Burger and when former wife Jane died of cancer, he refused to give his support to her posthumous book Angels Without Wings. In 1970, photographer Jill Krementz met Vonnegut at his play, Wanda June. Actress Diane Weist observed, 'She gave the impression of stalking Kurt while he was running from her." Shields then adds another quote, "She came to take his photo and never left." Krementz claimed she taught Vonnegut to make love. Vonnegut stayed with her despite threatening three divorces. Shields quotes from my 1992 Playboy interview between Joe Heller and Kurt when I ask Kurt, "What are you working on?" "A divorce," he said with a wheezing chuckle. Vonnegut rejected Lora Lee Wilson, his love interest in Slaughterhouse Five , who wanted to care for him. He claimed he stayed with Jill because she saved him from pills and the bottle though in 1991, Jill ran off with another man. She returned to Vonnegut when that man ran off with another woman. Jill wanted marriage and to adopt their daughter, Lilly, so Vonnegut acquiesced. Apart from serving as guide into monied New York (her stepfather, a wealthy jeweler), Vonnegut saw himself in the eyes of a younger lover. Shields, who does not protect Krementz, writes:
"Kurt's role was to humor her, a narcissistic female much like the one who spurred his creativity -- his icy mother. Creativity is often a response to emotional pain. A domineering, cold mother, causes anxiety and neurosis that can serve as a goad (a lash, some would say) to artistic pursuits."
"I can't write unless I hurt myself some," Vonnegut confessed.
While walking Jill's dog, an 84-year-old and fragile Kurt Jr. tripped, and struck his head on the sidewalk. He had joked a dog would kill him.
John Updike wrote, "Kurt Vonnegut's disarming voice masked its pain with a shrug."
Tears might stain your pages. Mine did.
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