No author has been more identified with one phrase than Kurt Vonnegut: "And so it goes." Charles J. Shields' stunning new biography of Vonnegut reveals that life did not go well for Vonnegut or for many of those around him. His insecurity, stubbornness, and often belligerent attitude often made him a pariah even unto himself. Shields paints a masterpiece of an unhappy and ultimately spiteful writer.
And So It Goes is not a literary biography though much of what is here lends itself to more than a cursory examination of what caused Vonnegut to write and the underlying themes he developed and wrote about during most of his career. Rather, this extraordinary biography is an attempt to "retrace his life as a son, husband, father, and colleague, but most importantly as an author whose disarming voice, as John Updike wrote me shortly before is own death, 'masked its pain with a shrug.'"
While Shields received the approbation and assistance of Vonnegut, they only met twice in person. After a two-hour meeting in March 2007, Vonnegut tripped leaving his New York brownstone, fell into a coma and died a month later. Shields continued his research without the man who "took a powder and left me holding the bag." Vonnegut's wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, and his son Mark did not cooperate.
To further complicate his life, Vonnegut was always the younger brother who could never live up to the success of Bernard, his older brother. He was a scientific genius whom Kurt always blamed for pressuring him to attend Cornell rather than going to work at the Indianapolis Star as a reporter. Vonnegut eventually dropped out and enlisted in the army, but he spent the rest of his life agonizing over the lack of that degree and scheming in various ways to have his writing count in fulfillment of requirements for a degree. The irony is that he ultimately received a spate of honorary doctorates.
His relationships with women, his friends and family, and his editors and publishers are revealed in details that are raw and enlightening about the man who was so different in his public and private lives. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was ultimately a man who was aware that his literary abilities were declining although he continued to write until near the end. When asked why he wrote a nonfiction book (A Man Without a Country)in 2005 after declaring in 1997 that he was through writing, he famously said, "Well, I had hoped to be dead." That sense of ineffable sadness pervades this brilliant and revelatory examination of a life painfully lived.
And So It Goes is every bit the equal of that of the more acclaimed Steve Jobs, published concurrently. Vonnegut would have been pleased, but he would want to know why his biography did not get as much play in the press.