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And So It Goes Kurt Vonnegut: A Life

by Charles J. Shields

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And So It Goes Kurt Vonnegut biography
© Henry Holt & Company
Henry Holt and Company, 2011

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.
Shields pulls no punches in laying out the life of Vonnegut, a man beset by demons. He was born into a wealthy family that gradually slid down the socio-economic scale. Clearly, this decline created in Vonnegut an enduring quest for the dollar and his writing, especially his earlier work in magazines, were calculated to make money. It was a pursuit that never left him. His mother, decimated by the decline in fortune descended into mental illness. At one point, for example, when Vonnegut was about ten, his mother screamed at and insulted his father for his failures as a husband and businessman, a pattern that would continue for the remainder of her life. In perhaps the most devastating punch to the gut of her family, she committed suicide on Mother's Day while Vonnegut was home on leave from the army. He was on the way to that appointment with destiny in the firestorm of Dresden.

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.
He was always seeking approval: for his writing; his teaching; his ability to provide. In a 1973 interview, Vonnegut said that "at the dinner table I was the lowest ranking member there." He was five years younger than his sister and nine years younger than his brother and felt he "could not be interesting to these vivid grownups." Despite his later success as a writer, he was never content to sit back and simply accept the accolades that came his way; he wanted to point out his success as if no one had ever noticed. For example, he was peeved that Webster's Dictionary included entries about other contemporary writers, but not him.

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.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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