Monday, November 28, 2011

New Biography: And So It Goes; Kurt Vonnegut: A Life

And So It Goes Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields.

In the 1960s there were two books set in World War II that became classics of the Vietnam era counterculture, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, both written in a kind of tragic-comical-ironic style. A fine biography of Heller appeared earlier this year, and was reviewed in this blog, Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller by Tracy Daugherty. Shields new biography gives us some of the sad details of Vonnegut’s life including the financial collapse of his architect father during the Depression, followed by the suicide of Vonnegut’s mother when he was 21. Vonnegut was in the Battle of the Bulge and was a prisoner of war (and witness) during the allied firebombing of Dresden. A much cherished sister died of cancer only a day after her husband’s death in a train wreck. Vonnegut and his wife raised three of the four orphaned children. He had a series of unhappy marriages, and in 1984 came close to losing his life through the abuse of pills and alcohol.

But Vonnegut, besides the unhappy details of his private life, also worried about how he was perceived as a writer. Vonnegut once said, “Critics think I’m stupid because my sentences are so simple and my method is so direct.” He was always sensitive to the suggestion that he was a “kids” writer, that his works which had such appeal to a younger generation were in fact less sophisticated than “adult” writing, that he was a writer of juvenile and jokey pulp fiction. And yet his work like Heller’s and J.D. Salinger’s continues to be read by new generations, and remembered by them in later years as having had an important impact in their lives. A lot of those people are going to want to read more about the life of this writer who has become, with no small measure of affection, a contemporary Mark Twain to several generations now.

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