on November 8, 2011
Dresden, Germany. The night of February 13, 1945. Remnants of the Army's 423rd Regiment, 106th Division, captured almost as soon as they began fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, are roused from their bunks in a POW camp by an airraid siren. They are hustled into a meat locker, 60 feet below ground. German prison guards enter the bunker with them, and shut the steel door behind them. Above ground, the night time firebombing of Dresden begins. In the one thousand degree heat, "super heated tornadoes had sucked out the oxygen and turned hiding places into tombs." The bombing continued into the night. At dawn the next day, the POW's emerged from the meat locker to see what had happened, Private Kurt Vonnegut among them. What he saw that day colored his entire career and formed the basis for his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse 5.
The new Charles J. Shields biography of Kurt Vonnegut, And So It Goes, doesn't adhere to the love-hate mentality that was in vogue between biographers and their subjects a generation ago. In the current book, biographer and author seemed genuinely to like each other in the brief period they worked together. One could go so far as to say that before Vonnegut's death, they were well on their way to becoming, well, pals. Ah, I thought to myself. This biographer will suck up in person, then skewer the old man after he dies. It never happens.
This is not to say Vonnegut gets a free pass. Infidelities and indiscretions are on full view, and never more so than in the Fall of 1965 when the author begins an affair at the famous University of Iowa creative writing workshop. As his fame grows, so do the number of extra marital liaisons, most spectacularly with Jill Krementz, a photographer who comes off in the book as having the charm and graciousness of Lady Macbeth. During their tryst, wife Jane Vonnegut is rewarded by being left home in the role of family matriarch to supervise the upbringing of their children. In the saddest episode of the book, Vonnegut's brother-in-law Jim Adams is killed in a train wreck and Kurt's sister Alice, terminally ill and grief stricken over the tragedy befallen her husband, also dies and the Vonnegut household is newly infused with four additional children to care for.
Even as Jill finds Kurt an apartment in Manhattan where he feasts in regal fashion, Jane is as determined as ever to hold the family together. On page 290, out of the pain of knowing her husband is living with another woman, Jane issues her own prophecy: "Jill will find ways to cut you off from your home", an eerie forecast that comes true not once but twice - most flamboyantly on Page 404 when Vonnegut, smoking during Super Bowl pre-game ceremonies, goes down stairs for a snack, and watches portions of his Manhattan townhouse go up in flames. In a fit of anger, Jill changes the locks on the door for the second time, refusing him entry. If there is any justice in the game of musical beds, surely it came when Vonnegut learns that just as he and Jill deceived Jane, so Jill and investment banker Stephen DuBrul ultimately deceive Kurt. Even that isn't the end of things as DuBrul abruptly terminates the relationship with Jill and she hightails it back to Vonnegut, who has finally had enough of his sugar daddy role and files the first of three petitions to divorce Jill.
Even with contretemps like these, it is never the intention of Shields to intentionally debunk or puncture Vonnegut's reputation. If anybody gets skewered, it is literary critics as a group, who ignored him when he was starting out then jumped on his bandwagon as he became a moneymaker. Shields places his subject's actions in the context of success American style. Impoverished most of his life, when the trappings of reward were offered, Vonnegut took full advantage. The writing in this biography is straight forward and devoid of moralizing so that readers don't mind "looking under the hood" to discover that, as his father had done, Vonnegut not only became a stock market investor, but a shareholder in Dow Chemical which, Shields points out, was the sole manufacturer of napalm in the Vietnam War.
It is part of Shields' research effort to illuminate his subject's private persona, then compare and contrast that to his public image - if only to show that most of the time, public expectations are at odds with a subject's private behavior. In that, Kurt Vonnegut was no exception.
There are two major wonders in this book: 1. How did Vonnegut, not only a heavy smoker, but a smoker of Pall Mall, an unfiltered cigarette, live to the ripe old age of 85? 2. How is it that at page 350 in a 400 page book, we are only up to 1982 with the publication of Vonnegut's novel Dead Eye Dick? That is to say, how can the remaining 25 years of Vonnegut's life warrant a tad more than 50 pages? This second question is answered by Vonnegut himself. "We all see our lives as stories...if a person survives an ordinary span of sixty years or more, there is every chance that his or her life as a shapely story has ended, and all that remains to be experienced is epilogue. Life is not over, but the story is."
Unless you are Kurt Vonnegut. Many would be satisfied to have their entire life distilled down to the career he had after age 60. He produced the best seller Hocus Pocus in 1990 at the age of 68. Showtime adapted three of his short stories for network TV in 1991. Nick Nolte starred in a 1996 film adaptation of Mother Night. A collection of his speeches and essays appeared in 2005 as A Man Without A Country, which spent several weeks on the New York Times nonfiction best seller list.
Kurt Vonnegut died in 2007.
Though I was one of the young folks enthralled by Slaughterhouse-Five, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, and much more of Vonnegut's work, I really didn't know much about the man, his family, and his life--except for his youthful Army service and horrifying experiences as a POW after the Allied firebombing of Dresden. Charles Shields, who wrote the first substantive biography of Harper Lee, corresponded with Vonnegut, proposing a biography. Once he had convinced his subject--rightly--of his top-notch research skills, Vonnegut finally sent Shields a last illustrated postcard, this time captioned, "OK." Work had not progressed very far before Vonnegut tripped over his Lhasa Apso's leash, fell, and never regained consciousness, dying three weeks later in 2007.
Perhaps what finally pushed Vonnegut to trust Shields was the fact that really had been no previous biography of this literary icon of the second half of the twentieth century, which rankled Vonnegut. If America had a one-man Grub Street, Vonnegut grubbed away there in West Barnstable on Cape Cod for some twenty years churning out dozens of short stories and a few novels, amid clouds of Pall Mall smoke, before Slaughterhouse-Five made him a bestselling author. It also conferred financial security where previously there had been none. In this freelance writer's life existed a neat division of labor: Kurt wrote, while his then-devoted first wife Jane did everything else, including taking in three young, orphaned nephews when his adored sister Alice died of cancer just a day after her husband perished in a railroad accident.
In the mid-1960s, Vonnegut eagerly accepted a last-minute offer to teach at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. There, for the first time, he was a widely admired instructor and author in a community of fellow writers. When Vonnegut became besotted with a student, the other faculty members remained discreet; it was a while before Jane, joining him in Iowa City, found out about that indiscretion and those that followed. After twenty years, the marriage became severely strained--although Vonnegut saw no reason not to ask his estranged wife to continue handling the details of everyday life. She wisely refused.
Although Jane and Kurt's children Mark, Edie, and Nannie, as well as the nephews who moved in with them, all appear to have been most forthcoming in multiple interviews, the book easily could have been doomed at the outset. Mark Vonnegut, his father's literary executor, refused to allow Shields to quote from Vonnegut's correspondence, insisting the letters "spoke for themselves." Shields demonstrated his great gift for paraphrasing the letters' contents in order to meet the burdensome legal requirements. In nearly two thousand references, the paraphrased letter content does not stick out from interview quotes in an obtrusive way. When Harper Lee declined to be interviewed for Mockingbird, Shields' biography, he acquired a whole new skill set--fortunately for us.
One source who refused to speak to the author was Vonnegut's second wife, photographer/author Jill Krementz. Judging from the impressions of just about everyone in Vonnegut's circle of friends, family, and colleague, Krementz appears to be an opportunistic scalp-collector rather than a wife. Vonnegut was introduced into the higher echelons of New York litr'y circles before Krementz decided that her husband had outlived his usefulness. Though Vonnegut pursued divorce three times, he never followed through, and Krementz retaliated through infidelity and by doing virtually nothing to sweeten her husband's last years.
This book engrossed me from the time I slipped it from its wrapping until I read the final pages. Bravo, Shields--again!
on September 3, 2012
I've waited a long time to write this review because I was pretty upset about several aspects of the book and wanted to calm down. It is an informative picture of many aspects of Vonnegut's life, but as other reviewers have pointed out, it dwells too much on deflating, sometimes inaccurately, the image of Vonnegut many admirers believed in, and it undervalues his literary achievement. Just to take one example of the image deflation, the author highlights Vonnegut's hypocrisy in owning Dow Chemical stock while presenting himself as anti-war during the Vietnam conflict, yet Donald Farber, self-described in an a New York Times Book Review letter to the editor as Vonnegut's "attorney, agent, manager and buddy for over 40 years" says that he managed Vonnegut's investments and is certain that Vonnegut never even paid attention to what specific stocks were in the portfolio. Sure, that can be thought of as a failing too, but it does not seem like the conscious hypocrisy it is portrayed as in this book. Shields' emphasis is usually on the negative, and when he does point out an act of generosity, it doesn't receive as much attention as the stories that tear down Vonnegut's popular image. As for the literary content of the book, Shields too often relies on book reviews that pointed out that the post-Slaughterhouse Five novels fell short. It is not unusual for books to garner a high reputation after publication that belies the initial reviews. Breakfast of Champions, for example, is very highly regarded by many readers, but Shields makes it sound decidedly second-rate. I know Vonnegut himself talked negatively about that novel, but authors are never the final arbiter of a book's success. The fact is that all of Vonnegut's novels are still in print, with at least four-star ratings in Amazon reviews (the last time I checked). That is pretty impressive. In addition, literary critics (as opposed to book reviewers) have analyzed most of them favorably, including Breakfast of Champions. So the book is valuable for giving us the shape of his life, but it has a bias with regard to how that life is presented, and it falls considerably short of presenting the magnitude of Vonnegut's substantial literary achievement.
on October 4, 2012
I waited a few months to write this review, since I wanted a long thought, reflective conscious to write by. Part of me really, really wants to like this book. It was throughly entertaining at times. The writing style is very readable and the chapters flow together in a very engaging manner. Having already known much of Vonnegut's contradictions between public persona and personal standings, the 'scandally bits' were not new to me, either. The fact that Vonnegut's creative process, literary impact and other essentials were discussed sparingly compared to his marital affairs did not especially bother me, as the book intended only to show the reader the trajectory of Vonnegut's personal life, never promising to be anything more. The disturbing part to me was the literary analysis and reflection of Vonnegut's work as described by Shields. I found a lot of his summaries to be largely inaccurate, skewing essential themes to work within a particular argument about Vonnegut's personal life. 'The Sirens of Titan' summary provided was one of the more prominent examples of this. I'm not talking strictly about a misinterpretation of theme here. The physical descriptions of plot, time and what's happening at a particular instance of the story itself were often inaccurate. I wish I could find the page number this section falls on, but I don't have a copy of the biography on me at the moment. Shields describes the introductory paragraph of 'Sirens' in a way that makes it seem like it's written from someone in the present tense commenting on the events about to transpire. I've always understood it to be a reflection from a future tense, looking back at human beings from the time during which the book takes place. The fact that in such paragraphs Vonnegut's work is taken seemingly intentionally out of context itself is not what worries me most though. It's the assumption that this approach could also have been taken in recollecting Vonnegut's personal life, making other details suspect to inaccuracy too. Again, the book itself is well worded and from a language perspective, I very much liked it. The amount of personal opinion and subtle biased skewing of information imposed by Shields, however, is another issue entirely.
on September 29, 2012
It seems on browsing through some of the reviews of "And So It Goes" that many readers picked up this biography hoping to find the persona that Kurt Vonnegut crafted, as opposed to an honest story about the person. This is not a hit piece, as some reviewers assert, but rather a biography of the man, not the image he cultivated to sell his books. They are two very different things. Charles Shields is a fan of Vonnegut's, even going so far as to call him "an extraordinary man" in the text's Introduction. However, he does present him truthfully, and it seems that many fans can't handle that. I too will admit that I don't like finding out how much Kurt Vonnegut was not the man in real life that he used as his persona for the author of his novels. It makes me a little sad, but close reading of Vonnegut's nonfiction pieces alerted me long ago to his bitterness and mean spirit. I just conveniently ignore it. However, Mr. Shields must be truthful in this book, and he is.
I'll start with bringing up some negatives about the text. On a minor note, there are a few factual errors and inaccurate statements about a couple of Vonnegut's novels. Not a big deal which I am sure will be cleared up in later prints of the book. Of more consequence (to me) was how Mr. Shields inserts his own opinions about Vonnegut's novels occasionally into his examination of them. I don't like this. I am fine with him examining critical receptions and reader responses to the works when they appeared, but his personal thoughts on them should be left alone. It detracts from the objectivity he as the biographer should be trying to create.
However, Mr. Shields shines when he examines Vonnegut's life and the manner in which it found its way into his masterpiece "Slaughterhouse-Five". This part of the text is very well done, as is a lovely section on thoughts about the nature of "art" that Vonnegut shared with his scientist brother Bernard. The conversation is recounted on pages 394-396 of the text and is a highlight. The book also ends with an interesting (and short) history of Vonnegut's ancestors. I am not sure why it ends the book, but it is informative none the less.
On a personal note, if "And So It Goes" and Vonnegut's life feature a villain it is Vonnegut's second wife Jill Krementz. If half of what appears in this text is true (and it is all footnoted in the bibliography) then she was and is a horrible woman who did much to bring despair and pain into Vonnegut's life. The reader will hate her, and be exhausted and troubled by Vonnegut's never washing his hands of her. Mr. Shields never says this, but I get the feeling he was not too fond of her.
As the first authorized biography of Vonnegut (he was working with Shields when he died) "And So It Goes" is an important text. One of the most important writers of the last century deserves a biography, and now finally he has it.
on December 27, 2011
Fans of Vonnegut tend to be idealists. They resonate to his continual calls for empathy and kindness in a world which is harsh and chaotic.
He became such a popular author and personality because people embraced his message, delivered with art, wit, and humility, whether in his writings or in the many speeches he gave. Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five continue to sell tens of thousands of copies annually because the human truths he expresses through his fiction are perennially rediscovered by new generations.
This biography FAILS because its sole intent seems to be to draw contrasts between the message and the messenger. Its revelations about Vonnegut's personal struggles don't go much beyond petty tattle and do little to explicate the author's work--the work being what's really important about an artist, right? The rest is just gossip.
The first red flags are raised in the introduction where Shields admits to having met Vonnegut only twice in person, and that when Vonnegut was in poor health and despondent over America's downward spiral as well as his failing (second) marriage. So it's not surprising that the next 400+ pages seem intent on rooting out nothing but the dark and bitter aspects of Vonnegut's character. First impressions last.
There's very little biography here which Vonnegut himself did not address in his own writings and interviews, but the negative aspects seem to be amplified out of proportion for the sake of novelty--which in this case means emphasizing Vonnegut's character flaws, missteps and tribulations. Perhaps if Shields had known Vonnegut longer this biography would be more balanced, but the negative emphasis of it seems to be the result of Shields' need for an angle to give the book a hook: "So, you assume Vonnegut was a saint? Let me throw some mud on your icon!"
"And So It Goes" is at its best when it illuminates Vonnegut's writing by elaborating on the real life experiences which shaped his fiction, particularly the chapters on the backgrounds behind the novels Player Piano and Slaughterhouse-Five. More of that type of scholarship would have made sense--but most of the rest is just anecdotal irrelevance.
There is little in this book--aside from Vonnegut's implied drinking problem and questionable stock investments in the type of planet-wrecking corporations he often criticized--which is not revealed elsewhere, whether in his own writing or the much more sympathetic memoir "Love as Always, Kurt" by Loree Rackstraw. This latter book also benefits from being able to quote from Vonnegut's own hitherto unpublished correspondence, a feature absent from "And So It Goes" because Shields was denied permission by Mark Vonnegut, co-executor of his father's estate.
The bottom line is this book won't inform your reading of Vonnegut in a meaningful way, so why bother?
This is the first big biography of Vonnegut (he himself was desperate for one), but one hopes it's not the last because "And So It Goes" does nothing more than cast a shadow over an author who brought light into so many lives. Poo-tee-weet?
on May 14, 2013
This biography benefits from the fact that it is a big fish in a small pond; not many Vonnegut biographies exist and certainly none of them is as extensive (as in length, not in depth or value). Unfortunately, there is hardly any narrative structure to Shield's attempt. It might be possible to excuse that as a cute comment or homage to Vonnegut's own writing, but a biography is too important to get lost in such a gimmick (and I don't think the style was intentional).
Structure aside, the book succeeds in presenting a monstrously deep amount of research. However, in too many places, the book reads like field notes. The narrative coherence one needs to construct a biography is simply not here. We see displays of emotion and read about certain situations and conversations, but we are never presented with a comprehensive idea of who Vonnegut is or how he got that way. The only possible exception I can see is that Shields wants the audience to know how profoundly disappointed Vonnegut was with nearly every aspect of his personal and professional lives. After reading this dossier of loose-leaf or at best paperclipped facts about Kurt Vonnegut, there is but one conclusion that we can draw about him and it's one that any person who has read any two of his books already knew: He was sad.
As other reviews on Amazon and elsewhere have either said or alluded, Shields' biography will continue to be read because it's all we have. That said, there is nothing new that can't be found in other places. I never understood what critics mean by "only for the completist" when criticizing or cautioning against the reading of a particular work... Until now.
on August 6, 2012
O.K., so I'm a big Vonnegut fan, sue me. Shields would. But he did even worse to Vonnegut: he conned him into writing his authorized biography, and then stuck a knife into him. Yes, I know Vonnegut--no one really--is as good as his public persona. From what I already knew, Vonnegut's infidelity made him look worse than I imagined. He treated his first wife, Jane, like a selfish lout, and got what he deserved with the second, Jill (though I suspect she wasn't as bad as Sheilds paints her). But it does seem like Shields plays up Vonnegut's first wife's grievances while almost leaving his reconciliation with Jane on her deathbed as a footnote. Vonnegut was not very true to his oldest friends in publishing, either.
But, here's my question: in a biography of a writer (regardless of whether you think his stature is exaggerated), why emphasize the gossipy details of his personal life over the literary ones? I can't think of one novel Shields didn't summarize Sparknotes-like and then quickly dismiss--maybe Slaughter-house, but that's about it. "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," for instance, which I always felt was under-rated, was almost misrepresented, having so little written about it. (I went back and checked the index just to be sure about the pausity of references!)It would have been so nice to have heard more about the process of writing the novels, where the characters came from, and so on, but that doesn't happen very often. It would have been nice to have heard what other knowledgable people thought of the ideas in those novels. People have written their doctoral theses on these novels! What? Too dull?
So maybe it's important to know that Vonnegut's pose as the 20th century Mark Twain was self-consciously cultivated, right down to the curly hair. But I came away from this bio thinking, wow, if Kurt only could have known what Shields had in mind! How he would skewer him time and again while hardly ever discussing the books! The books! Isn't that why we're still talking about the man? If it's true that the Man Who Wrote the Novels was not the "real" Kurt Vonnegut, so what? It's not a very exclusive club. I still like the guy who wrote the books, but this biographer? He's nothing but a pilot fish.
on January 10, 2012
Someone had to be first out of the gate and publish a semi-full-length biography upon the heels of Vonnegut's death, no? And so it cannot be helped that this book feels under-researched. Details about someone like Vonnegut take many years after death to creep out of the woodwork and become satisfactorily added to the overall puzzle that is anyone's mortal life. Family members, business cohorts, friends and friends of friends have yet to pen their memoirs of Kurt, or at the very least be thoroughly interviewed.
The ickiest aspect of this book is the glaring emotional fact that the biographer does not "get" Vonnegut's books. He doesn't understand them nor has he ever been truly moved by them. He doesn't recognize them as soul-affirming, heart-opening, mind medicines. He doesn't celebrate the humour of any of them nor does he even hint at being sympathetic or in agreement with their overall philosophical conclusions and prescriptions. This biography contains no enthusiasm or love for the work---and even less for the man.
The biographer seems to have slanted the overall picture of Vonnegut so that he appears as a mostly insecure, womanising, sad, old, grouchy worrywart who didn't hug his children all that much.
I don't believe that picture.
There's also this very silly idea that there was some sort of crowd in this world who presumed he was some sort of saint or guru expected to be a dream-daddy-husband who never lost his temper or worried or felt overwhelmed or got depressed. That impression was just a load of turds perpetuated by magazine articles and preamble interview-related descriptions of who Kurt Vonnegut supposedly was to the "youth" of America. But the fact is nobody expected the Kurt Vonnegut they loved to be anything more than an old fart smoking his fool head off and writing books that amuse and touch the heart. Honestly!
He was a man whose mom killed herself on friggin' Mothers Day while he was there visiting as an adult soldier, not long before he was due to go to Dresden. He was a man who saw and touched countless dead human beings in various states of destruction and decay---human beings intentionally killed with malice aforethought by other human beings...
I'd much rather have a flippant, Absurdist, hi-ho attitude and humour towards such horrors than be emotionally crushed by them into a thousand mile stare.
Vonnegut's best books are pure philosophy in the form of humorous narratives. Vonnegut was an American philosopher. His main question was: What are people for? This is the same as asking: Why do I exist? Am I supposed to measure up to some sort of grade? Is this life a punishment? Is it a school? Can I kill myself without an after-death punishment? How did I get here? Is there a singular conscious entity called God responsible for my existence? If not, can living things still exist? What happens when I die?
Vonnegut lived during a time in human history when it would have been considered pretentious of him to refer to himself (or even think of himself) as a philosopher given that he did not posses a university degree in Philosophy and did not write about his philosophical quests, conclusions and prescriptions in a scholarly format. But in writing the way he did, he reached a wider audience. Academia would have forbade his humour and irreverence and thank goodness they didn't get a chance to.
To his credit, the biographer announces at the start of the book that he did not receive any cooperation from Vonnegut's 2nd wife.
The two results of this are:
---#1---Zero information from a person who lived with him and knew him for over 30 years---a spouse no less. She's a primary colour in the finished painting and her perspective and memories are sorely missing.
---#2---The biographer seems to convey snide undertones virtually anytime he refers to her. She comes off as little more than a one dimensional villain---a nasty thorn in Kurt's side.
For an authorized biography I am shocked by the lame, uninteresting quality of most of the photos.
I am disappointed that there is no list of every radio and tv show he appeared on.
There is no list of every interview he gave.
There are no photocopies of manuscript pages.
A biographer who truly loves his subject would have provided these things.
The bibliography for Kurt's appearances in magazines and newspapers is quite user unfriendly. It's not an easy-to-read list of one appearance per line but instead the info is all crammed together in paragraphs---one entry after another. I clear my throat and spit.
All in all, after reading this book from cover to cover, I hardly know more about Kurt Vonnegut than what I gleaned from his Prologues, interviews, and non fiction books.
I can only logically and generously assume that this biography was rushed. I doubt it began that way, but when Kurt kicked the bucket there must've been pressure from the publisher to pull the cake out of the oven even though it was only half baked. But then I sincerely wonder if Mr Shields would have ever been able to write a 1st class biography on Vonnegut given that he didn't really "get" Vonnegut to begin with. You can just feel it.
Sorry, dude. Write what you bloody well know or don't bother.
on June 26, 2015
Well-researched and interestingly-presented biographical depiction of the man behind the writing. Unfortunately, for those of us who assumed that his characters represented a writer who was sweetness and light, that seems to have been an error. Perhaps he was creating characters that represented his desire to be a better person? But there was an avaricious, money-grubbing, power-hungry, mean-spirited old coot underneath all that.