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Novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., 84; Keen Observer of Humankind

Captured during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, he was assigned to a prisoner of war work group in Dresden. The beautiful old city was unscathed at that point because it had no military significance, but on Feb. 13, 1945, the Allied High Command unleashed three waves of British and U.S. bombers on Dresden. Saturating the city with high explosives, followed by hundreds of thousands of incendiaries, the bombers ignited a firestorm that claimed more than 100,000 victims. The city burned for a week.

"We didn't get to see the fire storm," Mr. Vonnegut later wrote. "We were in a cool meat-locker under a slaughterhouse with our six guards and ranks and ranks of dressed cadavers of cattle, pigs, horses and sheep."

When he and his fellow prisoners emerged, "everything was gone but the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been baked like gingerbread men. So we were put to work as corpse miners, breaking into shelters, bringing bodies out."

That experience seared itself into Mr. Vonnegut's subconscious, although it would take him 25 years to express what he had seen and felt. It was the Vietnam War, he would explain later, that allowed him to "finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis."

After his discharge, Mr. Vonnegut switched from biochemistry to anthropology, studying at the University of Chicago for two years without taking a degree. He also worked as a police reporter for the Chicago City News Bureau.

From 1947 to 1950, he worked in public relations for General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y., a job he hated. He quit to become a full-time freelance writer.

For a number of years, he made a precarious living selling Saabs on Cape Cod and short fiction to the Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Fantasy and Science Fiction and other publications, "when the country was short-story crazy," he told Salon in 1999. The first collection of his short stories was "Canary in a Cathouse" (1961).

He relied on his GE experience for his first novel, "Player Piano" (1952), a black-humor satire about a group of corporate scientists and engineers who attempt to automate everything.

His second novel, "The Sirens of Titan" (1959), is lesser known than his other works, although he said it was his favorite. The novel tells the story of extraterrestrial forces that arrange the whole course of human history to provide an intergalactic traveler with a spare part for his spacecraft.

"Mother Night" (1961), his third novel, is the story of a World War II American intelligence agent named Howard W. Campbell Jr., whose virtuous messages home are coded through virulently anti-Semitic radio broadcasts he makes for the Nazis. In his introduction to the 1966 hardcover edition, Mr. Vonnegut offered what he considered the moral of the story: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

His next book, "Cat's Cradle" (1963), established Mr. Vonnegut as something more than a writer of quirky science-fiction tales. It is the story of Felix Hoenikker, a physicist and one of the fathers of the atomic bomb, whose innocent pursuit of truth leads him to a scientific breakthrough called ice-nine, a catalyst capable of transforming all the liquid in the world into solid ice.

The satirical "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or Pearls Before Swine" (1965), introduces Kilgore Trout, an unsuccessful science fiction writer and Mr. Vonnegut's alter ego. The novel's hero, wealthy philanthropist Eliot P. Rosewater, delivers a speech to a convention of science fiction writers, words that would seem to reflect Mr. Vonnegut's sentiments.

"You're the only ones crazy enough to know that life is a space voyage . . . that will last for billions of years," the fictional Rosewater says. "You're the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really know what machines do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us. You're the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distance without limit, over mysteries that will never die, over the fact that we are right now determining whether the space voyage for the next billion years or so is going to Heaven or Hell."

After "Slaughterhouse-Five" -- whose full title is "Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death" -- Mr. Vonnegut continued writing novels, including "Breakfast of Champions" (1973) and "Deadeye Dick" (1983), but less frequently after the 1970s. He published articles and essays as well as columns for the political journal In These Times, until shortly before his death.

He hated the Iraq war and said so frequently. "By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East?" he wrote in one of his In These Times columns. "Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas in December."

A collection of his nonfiction, "A Man Without a Country" (2005), was a best-seller. All of his novels remain in print; five have been made into movies.

His marriage to Jane Marie Cox ended in divorce.

Survivors include Krementz, his wife of 27 years; three children from his first marriage, Dr. Mark Vonnegut of Milton, Mass., Edith Vonnegut Squibb of Barnstable, Mass., and Nanette Vonnegut Prior of Northampton, Mass., and an adopted daughter, Lily Vonnegut of Sagaponack, N.Y., from his second marriage. He also adopted his sister's three young children after she died of cancer in 1958.


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