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An impressive first biography of a great American writer,
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This review is from: And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life (Hardcover)
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!