Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wide gulf separates Vonnegut the author and Vonnegut the man

Book 44: And So It Goes by Charles J. Shields

He was angry and depressed for much of his life. He neglected his children, cheated on his wife and betrayed the trust of friends.

This was the same man who gave us Billy Pilgrim, who came unstuck in time; the Tralfamadorians, who resemble an upright toilet plunger, exist in all times simultaneously and who used the phrase “so it goes”; the writer Kilgore Trout; and Montana Wildhack, the buxom star of a pornographic film.

Kurt Vonnegut was a wildly inventive writer who gave us one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century in Slaughterhouse Five, which tells the story of the bombing of Dresden in World War II. A bombing that generated a firestorm that destroyed much of this beautiful German city and consigned its inhabitants to a gruesome death. As a German prisoner of war, a young Vonnegut lived through that bombing and witnessed firsthand its tragic aftermath.

The gulf between the reality of Vonnegut the man and Vonnegut the author was wide, and perhaps to be expected. Author Charles Shields shows how Vonnegut’s experiences – growing up in Indiana with a family determined to shape his career path, caught up in the horror of the Second World War, raising an extended family –- shaped Vonnegut and his writing.

Eager to become an established writer and to prove family member’s wrong, Vonnegut abandoned a well-paying job at General Electric to write full time. Cranking out short stories designed to appeal to a mass market, Vonnegut was driven by financial need, desperation and pain. The pain arising from his mother’s suicide, the horror he experienced in Dresden and his abiding sense of injustice in the world.

Shields had an unprecedented level of access to Vonnegut near the end of his life, access that he uses in And So It Goes to deliver a compelling, balanced and sobering biography of the author’s life.


  1. I'm intrigued. I've read most of his stuff (I prefer his non-fiction stuff like Palm Sunday) and I used to work in London with a first cousin of his last wife and widow. Anytime I asked questions about them, Christina told me mostly about Jill but I was anxious for info on him. I will have to pick this up.

  2. Kurt Vonnegut is far and away my favorite author. I have not yet read this. I'm glad you brought it to my attention. Thanks!