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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-08-01
- Reviewer: Staff
Vonnegut initially refused to grant an interview to Shields (author of the bestselling Mockingbird), but then relented, enabling Shields to meet him during the last months of his life. This first authorized biography probes both Vonnegut's creative struggles and family life, detailing his transition from "the bowery of the book world" to counterculture icon. Shields delivers a vivid recreation of Vonnegut's ghastly WWII experiences as a POW during the Dresden firebombing that became the basis for Slaughterhouse-Five; the novel brought him overnight fame when it was serialized in Ramparts magazine and then published in a month when 453 Americans were killed in Vietnam. Tragedies and triumphs are contrasted throughout, along with an adroit literary analysis that highlights obscure or overlooked influences on Vonnegut: Ambrose Bierce, Céline, Robert Coover's metafiction, and Paul Rhymer, who scripted radio's Vic and Sade. With access to more than 1,500 letters, Shields conducted hundreds of interviews to produce this engrossing, definitive biography. It arrives during a year of renewed interest in Vonnegut, such as this year's Library of America's Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963–1973, and Gregory D. Sumner's Unstuck in Time: A Journey Through Kurt Vonnegut's Life and Novels, also due in Nov. (Nov.)
Vonnegut's life, like a bug in amber
In April 2011, the Library of America permanently established Kurt Vonnegut, who died in 2007, in the literary firmament with its publication of Novels and Stories: 1963-1973, a collection of four of Vonnegut’s most popular novels and a selection of his stories, interviews and speeches. While Vonnegut might have welcomed this recognition, he might also have made light of it with his typically playful harpooning of all matters related to the literary establishment.
As Charles Shields’ crisply delivered and exhaustively detailed new biography, And So It Goes, makes abundantly clear, the enigmatic Vonnegut both relished and loathed literary fame. Writing never came easy for him, and in the early ’50s he struggled at it mightily, for he didn’t have a clear vision of the audience he wanted to reach. He aimed at both the high-paying markets, such as The New Yorker, and the lower-paying pulp magazines like Astounding Science Fiction, to which his writing was much better suited. In August 1952, Vonnegut published his first novel, Player Piano, which introduced many of the themes that would dominate the rest of his literary output. In this novel, Vonnegut demonstrates his love of debunking fixed ideas and institutions that are usually treated with reverence: in this case, General Electric. His characters—as they were in the novels up through Slaughterhouse-Five, at least—are people struggling to avoid corruption and the traps laid for them by circumstance or the environment.
Drawing on interviews with Vonnegut—conducted mostly in the last year of his life—and his family and friends, along with more than 1,500 letters, Shields deftly traces Vonnegut’s life from his early grief over the loss of his mother, his struggles with his siblings and his recognition that humor could get him noticed, to his horrific experiences as a POW in Dresden in WWII and his quite meteoric rise and fall as a novelist. Vonnegut’s work peaked with the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969, and, as Shields points out, the novels that appeared after this popular success were not nearly as well received nor as critically acclaimed, in part because these later books tended to bog down in autobiographical diatribes.
Vonnegut once said that he kept losing and regaining his equilibrium, and Shields dexterously captures the ups and downs of Vonnegut’s life and work in this definitive biography.