Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 66.
- Review Date: 2008-02-25
- Reviewer: Staff
When Kurt Vonnegut died in April 2007, the world lost a wry commentator on the human condition. Thanks to this collection of unpublished fiction and nonfiction, Vonnegut's voice returns full force. Introduced by his son, these writings dwell on war and peace, especially the firebombing of Dresden, Germany. The volume opens with a poignant 1945 letter from Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to his father in Indianapolis, presenting a vivid portrait of his harrowing escape from that city. The fiction, full of his characteristic humor, includes stories about time travel and the impossibility of peace in the world (“Great Day”) and, in the title piece, a kind of mock Paradise Lost, Dr. Lucifer Mephisto teaches his charges about the insidious nature of evil and the impossibility of good ever triumphing. In his final speech, Vonnegut lets go some of his zingers (jazz is “safe sex of the highest order”) and does what he always did best, tell the truth through jokes: “And how should we behave during the Apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should also stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog, if you don't already have one.” So it goes. (Apr.)
Kurt Vonnegut's experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germanythe inspiration for his novel, Slaughterhouse-Fivestill bear heavily on his mind in Armageddon in Retrospect, a posthumous collection of 12 short stories and observations assembled and introduced by his son, pediatrician and memoirist Mark Vonnegut.
As in most of his celebrated writings, Vonnegut strikes a fine balance here between the impersonal horrors of war and the mundane coping mechanisms of its victims, between past realities and future possibilities and, ultimately, between good and evil. In the title story, he conjures up an institute in Oklahoma which plumbs the theory that all the world's ills may be caused by the Devil. In a more down-to-earth musing, "Guns Before Butter," three captive American soldiers, starving in Dresden, find comfort in dreaming up recipes for fabulous dishes and inscribing them in cookbooks.
Vonnegut died at the age of 84 on April 11, 2007, two weeks before he was scheduled to give a speech at Butler University. Fortunately, he had provided his son an advance copy of his remarks, and this rambling, avuncular piece opens the book. Reading like an all-purpose graduation speech, it is shot through with quips, fond memories of home and family, sage observations and verbal mischief.
Seeded through the book are reproductions of Vonnegut's sketches, as well as a letter he wrote to his family at the end of World War II explaining why and where he'd been missing in action. "On about February 14th," he writes, "the Americans came over, followed by the [Royal Air Force]. Their combined labors killed 250,000 people in 24 hours and destroyed all of Dresdenpossibly the world's most beautiful city. But not me."