More than any writer of his era, Kurt Vonnegut survives as an image: haggard, mustachioed, nicotine-stained, his hair a tangle—a cat’s cradle, one might say—of curls. As was often noted, he looked like Mark Twain, only cuter. Certainly, he was more boyish than Twain. He was a millionaire who rued, until he died, that his mother had not been a better hugger; a grown man who went swimming, sheepishly, in pants; a father who “painted pertinent quotes on various walls in the house.” He was 6’3″, but small at heart. “If the government assigned heights based on maturity,” he wrote in a letter to his first wife, Jane, “[I] would be much shorter.”
Vonnegut’s fiction was similarly deceptive; he addressed major themes in a minor key. “Mass destruction was a bit of a Vonnegut trope,” as Charles Shields observes in And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life (Henry Holt and Co., 528 pages, $30.00). That this was so is undeniable, and yet the message of Vonnegut’s darkest novels must sound saccharine to many schoolchildren. He believed in common decency and common sense, in mankind over machines. He was big on being nice. Being nasty was a bête noire. To the madness of his century, Vonnegut, who died in 2007, applied the moral vision of a Mouseketeer.
This made him a sympathetic public figure, who was quick to decry the religiosity of the Republican party and the war in Vietnam, but a novelist whose limitations were as conspicuous as his gifts. “There is an almost intolerable sentimentality in everything I write,” as Vonnegut himself admitted. In his greatest satires, Cat’s Cradle (1963) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), he envisioned catastrophic events from the perspective of their bystanders. This reflected a truth of his own experience. As an American prisoner of war in Dresden, in 1945, Vonnegut had hidden in an underground meat locker while Allied aircraft firebombed the city. When he emerged, “Lazarus-like,” days later, Dresden was a cinder. “It was as if he had slept through the sacking of Troy and woke just as the Greeks were boarding their ships for home,” as Mr. Shields puts it.
Vonnegut’s genius was to stake out this experience of anticlimax as his novelistic territory. His heroes are bemused bit players whose lives are measured by their distance from great affairs, rather than their proximity to them. It is a worldview inverted in favor of the little guy, and it is as hostile to change as it is to power. Mr. Shields is insightful when he points out that Vonnegut, though revered by hippies, was “less a radical than a reactionary.” On the day of the moon landing, in 1969, Vonnegut went on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, where he could rail against its profligacy in real-time. “For that kind of money,” Vonnegut had already written, paraphrasing a scientist, “the least [NASA] can do is discover God.” He had become the lord of the bumpkins. And indeed, with his frayed Afro and slight stoop, his invariable cigarette, Vonnegut looked the part.
It is surprising, then, to discover the degree to which this look and the persona that went with it were contrived. Mr. Shield’s biography of Vonnegut takes its title from Slaughterhouse-Five, where it occurs dozens of times; it is the perennial refrain of bad news. “He was arrested for plundering. He was tried and shot. So it goes.” The phrase encapsulates the attitude of wistful passivity that readers correctly associate with Vonnegut’s fiction. But it is an ironic title for the biography of the man himself, because Kurt Vonnegut the illustrious author was a strenuous work of artifice, whose fate was anything but thrust upon him. “We are what we pretend to be,” Vonnegut wrote in his third novel, Mother Night (1961), “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” He was a scrupulous pretender who heeded his own advice.
Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922. He grew up in a milieu so mistrustful of art that, when it came time for him to go to college, he was compelled, against his wishes, to study chemistry. Yet he discovered his vocation early. Vonnegut wrote columns for his high school and college newspapers, and, after the war, in 1951, he quit a well-paid job in public relations at General Electric to pursue his fiction full-time. But he was already married and a father, and he continued, perforce, to supplement his income by less exalted means. He worked as a high school teacher, a creative writing instructor, a copywriter, a car salesman and a caption writer for Sports Illustrated, where his tenure was characteristically brief. “The horse jumped over the fucking fence,” Vonnegut wrote the day he walked out. He was rarely too proud to stoop to an opportunity, but often too proud to exploit one. “Maybe the problem was not that the agents didn’t know what to do for [Vonnegut],” the SI secretary, Carolyn Blakemore, later reflected, “but he didn’t know what to do in the role of a writer.”
Ms. Blakemore misjudged her colleague. One thing Vonnegut did do was rise at 5 every morning to write. And when his moment finally came, he seized it with an alacrity that is hard to distinguish, in Mr. Shields’s telling of the story, from opportunism.
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.