“He was a countercultural hero, a guru, and a leftist to his fans; a wealthy investor to his broker; a champion of family and community and yet a distant father … a satirist of American life but feeding at the trough of celebrity up to his ears.” In short, he was much like us: a person of contradictions living in a complicated and often frustrating world.
Charles Shields, having written the best-selling Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, has now delivered a 400-plus page biography of Kurt Vonnegut. The book flows like one of Vonnegut’s novels. You can plow through a hundred pages in one sitting, driven along by the efficient writing and the comedy and tragedy of the subject.
In his introduction, Shields relates how he pitched the biography idea to an aged Vonnegut. Persisting with efforts of flattery and self-promotion, and receiving several intervening demurrals, Shields finally received a postcard from Vonnegut bearing a sketch of the author smoking a cigarette, under which appeared a simple message: “OK.”
Vonnegut must have observed a little of himself in the biographer’s earnestness, in his desire to pitch his skills. After all, Vonnegut had been a public relations man for the formidable General Electric Company before making his name as a writer. He left that post due to a mixture of disgust with man’s mishandling of nature (honchoed, in a prominent example, by Vonnegut’s scientist brother) and a desire to pursue a literary career. Shields shows how Vonnegut was buffeted by economic hardships and serial frustrations as he strove to make a living from his stories. One gets the impression that Vonnegut might never have become known if not for his fierce determination to sell. Vonnegut became a PR man for his own writing, and he turned himself into a brand.
Although Shields has presented an interesting and eminently readable book, its criticism of the author extends only so far. There are tones of disapproval over Vonnegut’s personal life, such as his choice to leave a devoted wife for a younger woman. But even in that criticism, Shields allows for the excuse that Vonnegut was seeking shelter from the storm of a crowded, child-centered house, one that grew beyond expectations as a result of the death of Vonnegut’s sister and his brother-in-law. Shields does, however, cite many bad contemporary reviews and the emotional distress they caused to the writer.
It seems to me that Vonnegut’s prose was easy to digest not just for the economical writing, but also because it was quick to blame without fully exploring its subject. Satire is that way. Too much of America in the twenty-first century is also that way: we are a cynical nation divided roughly in two. But in Vonnegut’s time, he was a breath of fresh air. And his prose had a kernel of hope in it: a pining for how America ought to be, or how it maybe once was. In that way it was not at all cynical.
Vonnegut may not have been a rigorous reporter, but he was honest with his audience and that trait made him loveable, at least on paper. He had an earnest desire to seek community and he argued for it in his writing. The great emotion of his work was tied to the closeness Vonnegut felt to his subjects. He felt it so much that he could not help but inject himself into the narrative. But even as Vonnegut spun out tales from his own life into his books, the real Vonnegut was more complicated than the caricatures he sketched. Shields quotes the words of one of Vonnegut’s adopted sons, Tiger Adams: “He was sort of the darling of the hippie movement … [they had the impression] he was … hipper than any of his kids… And he really wasn’t.”
Vonnegut was never much of an activist. When his first wife Jane headed up efforts on Cape Cod for presidential candidate George McGovern, Vonnegut’s involvement was ancillary and occasional, more the result of marital peacekeeping than personal motivation. The real Vonnegut was grumpy in life and in fiction. He was not a happy warrior, but a resentful one. And who can blame him?
On an attempted trip to East Germany in 1967, Vonnegut and his war buddy Bernie O’Hare wanted to go back and see Dresden, where they had been imprisoned during World War II. They encountered unexplained difficulties at customs and were not allowed into the country. Vonnegut reportedly said: “Goddamn it! They wouldn’t fucking let us out, now they won’t fucking let us in!”
The opposite of that statement might have been made about Vonnegut’s celebrity. He strove and battered his way to notoriety and made a market for his writing, but after he became famous the critics, his fans and the lifestyle would not leave him alone. The frustration of Vonnegut, the frustration of us.
Kevin White is an attorney in Richmond, Virginia.