So It Went: A New Biography of Kurt Vonnegut Is a Portrait of an Artist who Cultivated a Scruffy Image

The novelist and master of self-marketing became an icon of the counterculture

As the publication date drew near for Slaughterhouse-Five, on which Vonnegut had worked, fitfully, for 20 years, he brooded over his author photo. He was clean-cut, clean-shaven, a bit paunchy—in 1969, an unlikely candidate for cultural eminence. He decided “to cultivate the style of an author who was in.” “To meet the expectations of his audience was key,” Mr. Shields writes. “He lost weight, allowed his close-cropped hair to become curly and tousled, and grew a moustache. … He looked like an avant-garde artist and social critic now, not rumpled Dad-in-a-cardigan.” His upper lip would never reappear. Slaughterhouse-Five became a number-one New York Times best-seller, and its tousled (not rumpled) author became an icon of the counterculture.

In retrospect, the acuity with which Vonnegut marketed himself seems to demonstrate an insight into his era that is close to cynicism about it. Mr. Shields’s thoroughgoing biography does little to dispel this impression. (Mr. Shields, in turn, can demonstrate a thoroughgoingness that is close to comedy. When he quotes from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, he footnotes it, play, act, and scene.) Vonnegut became an idol to a demographic to which he personally remained aloof. He did not get hippies, and they, up close, did not get him. When he met with Jefferson Airplane to brainstorm lyrics, they could only apologize to each other. “As a friend wrote to [Vonnegut] sometime later, ‘Your writing has the peculiar quality of only reflecting the reader’s beliefs back on him.’”

Mr. Shields is a rather bland reader of his subject’s fiction. “The more autobiographical his work became,” he observes, “the less space he devoted to fiction.” Still, he has a nose for its author’s contradictions. The sentimental old man of American letters could be a cold fish in the flesh. A holder of rousing political opinions, Vonnegut “had only been mildly interested in politics most of his adult life”—until he realized that “his audience expected him … to moralize.” A salty Midwesterner, he fed “at the trough of celebrity up to his ears.” A stormy foe of the Vietnam war, he was also a stockholder in “Dow Chemical, the sole maker of napalm.”

And Vonnegut, who championed family to his readers, was reckless with those closest to him. “The persona, the ‘ghost’ of him, as he called it, became like an itching, second skin he couldn’t slough off,” as Mr. Shields writes. In 1972, while living in Manhattan with the photographer Jill Krementz, whom he married in 1979—“I taught Kurt to play tennis and to make love”—he asked his estranged first wife to file his taxes. “That would give him more time to write.” He spurned the agent, Knox Burger, to whom he owed his career, and the publisher, Sam Lawrence, to whom he owed its resurrection. When critics, after Slaughterhouse-Five, began to pan his novels, “he charged [them] with one of his favorite accusations: they were just snobs.” Still, he “badly … wanted to teach at Harvard.”

“Perhaps it was possible to live too long,” writes his biographer. Vonnegut aged ungracefully. His writing declined, his relationship with Ms. Krementz staled—to his children, he referred to their marriage as “his disease”—and, in 1984, he attempted suicide. “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all,” Vonnegut wrote. Yet Vonnegut himself seems to have been the victim less of a series of accidents than of the voracity of his own designs on fame. “Thinking about his behavior usually led to periods of depression,” Mr. Shields writes, “which in turn interfered with his work.”

This was a truth that Vonnegut, characteristically, could deal with only in doodles. In the 1970s, “he began adding six quick strokes of a felt-tip pen under his signature—an asshole. … He was an asshole, he explained …; however, ‘being human was an asshole condition.’” So it goes.