However, he can then turn around and be very much a caring family man, as in this fatherly letter — so redolent of the era — to his son, Mark: “I ask a favor for your mother’s sake: please look awfully nice at your graduation. She is a dear, romantic girl, and I want her to be as happy as she can possibly be at the graduation of her only son.
“I am talking about hair, of course.”
Surprised by the immense success of “Slaughterhouse-Five” in 1969, Vonnegut calls himself an American fad “of a slightly higher order than the hula hoop.” But then his life dramatically changes. He moves from the big family home on Cape Cod to a bachelor apartment in New York, starts to live with photographer Jill Krementz and then marries her. Nearly every letter to his daughter Nancy addresses this seeming betrayal, this “faithless act.” Vonnegut explains again and again that he and Jane had lost some kind of telepathic unity, that there was a “formless anger” in him, that he wasn’t lured away by a younger woman. He dismisses the usual cliched tale of “a rich guy who abandons his wife to go to the big city and live in a town house and ride around in a Mercedes and live with the Wicked Witch of the East.”
That’s almost ironic, given that Krementz is a virtual non-person in these letters, not even mentioned in the acknowledgments. In later years, Vonnegut makes several bitter cracks about her, writes that she views him as just a “meal ticket,” talks of divorcing her for adultery, and yet somehow never quite gets around to it.
In those same later years, Vonnegut addresses sharp letters to school boards about censorship, works hard to bring his Russian translator to the United States and grows crankier and crankier. He complains that modern kids don’t know anything about the past, insults the book critic Anatole Broyard, takes pills for depression and (accidentally) overdoses enough to land in a hospital, and eventually defines the mood of his generation as “wry disappointment with what the world has actually become, so inhospitable and snide.” Bill and Hillary Clinton he dismisses as “shallow, opportunist Yuppies.”
Science fiction fans, in particular, will value one very late letter to Noel Sturgeon. In it Vonnegut recalls his meeting with the great science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, the partial inspiration for his own Kilgore Trout. In still another late letter, Vonnegut stresses, yet again, that “story-telling is a game for two, and a mature storyteller . . . is sociable, a good date on a blind date with a total stranger, so to speak.”
Kurt Vonnegut never regarded himself as a great writer. But he did possess that undervalued gift of charm, of sociability. There are authors we admire or envy, but there are just a few we really, really love, and Vonnegut is one of them.
Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.