By William Sheehan
Monday, February 14, 2011; 11:05 PM
The late Kurt Vonnegut was one of the great humanist voices of the 20th century. A former prisoner of war and a witness to the firebombing of Dresden in 1945, he was also a profoundly pessimistic man with a bleak worldview fueled by what he described as "disgust with civilization." Paradoxically, though, the general tenor of his fiction was neither bleak nor bitter. It was humane, consistently funny and filled with rueful, hard-earned wisdom.
As readers of "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" will remember, he famously advocated kindness in all human dealings and was fond of quoting a remark made by his like-minded son, Mark, author of "The Eden Express": "We are here to help each other through this thing, whatever it is."
Since his death in 2007, Vonnegut has, to our great good fortune, remained a persistent literary presence. To date, three volumes of previously unpublished early writings have appeared, and they have all been uniquely valuable. The first, "Armageddon in Retrospect" (2008), is largely notable for the title story, which gave hints of the idiosyncratic style that would eventually emerge, and for "Wailing Shall Be in All Streets," an earnest, angry nonfiction account of the bombing of Dresden. Next came "Look at the Birdie" (2009), 14 vivid, often comic slices of life in postwar America.
Now we have "While Mortals Sleep," which contains 16 stories, numerous sui-generis illustrations by the author himself and an introduction by Dave Eggers that is a model of its kind: smart, sympathetic and scrupulous in its assessment both of the stories at hand and of Vonnegut's overall place in American culture.
These stories, like much of Vonnegut's apprentice work, were written to fit the constraints of the popular short-fiction market of the day, such as Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. The results are decidedly less flamboyant both in style and subject matter than his later, more representative work. No one in this volume encounters an apocalyptic scenario, no one comes unstuck in time, no one is visited by sirens, from Titan or anywhere else. Vonnegut's characters are ordinary people from places like Schenectady, N.Y., and Indianapolis. They work as file clerks, window salesmen, reporters and anonymous members of female secretarial pools. They deal with the problems all of us deal with: grief, loneliness, financial pressures, personal and professional frustration.
Vonnegut draws us into these unremarkable lives with remarkable speed and efficiency. His brisk, straightforward prose resonates, even in these early pieces, with authority and understated wit. Consider, for example, the opening paragraph of the title story, "While Mortals Sleep": "If Fred Hackleman and Christmas could have avoided each other, they would have. He was a bachelor, a city editor, and a newspaper genius, and I worked for him as a reporter for three insufferable years. As nearly as I could tell, he and the Spirit of Christmas had as little in common as a farm cat and the Audubon Society."
Without flash or pyrotechnics of any sort, these three sentences lead us directly into a highly unusual Christmas story set against the backdrop of a big-city newsroom more than 50 years ago. That sense of instant accessibility dominates this collection. Each of the stories, whatever its specific nature or characteristics, is immensely readable and thoroughly entertaining.
More significant still, each of these 16 stories is about something moral. At heart, Vonnegut was a moralist, a Philosopher of the Good. And as Eggers notes, when you've lived through the kind of events that Vonnegut endured, "you've got some credit in the moral-authority bank." His beliefs and concerns were part of the very fabric of his work and, at his best, he delivered his lessons in a nondidactic, deeply engaging fashion.
In "Tango," the wealthy scion of a privileged, class-conscious New England family literally dances his way toward a new, previously unsuspected vision of life's possibilities. In "Out, Brief Candle," a middle-aged widow finds a surprising antidote to her deeply entrenched sense of solitude. "The Humbugs" recounts a competition between two dissatisfied artists that results in a small artistic renaissance for both. In "Money Talks," two young people struggle to form a bond despite the overpowering obstacle of great and sudden wealth. In "Ruth," a pregnant young widow's confrontation with her hostile, grieving mother-in-law forces her to grow in unexpected ways.
And so it goes in the world according to Vonnegut, a world where decency and compassion never cease to matter, where people struggle - sometimes successfully, sometimes not - against loneliness and a pervasive sense of personal insignificance. It's good to have these stories, good to hear that inimitable voice once more. It's heartening to discover that Vonnegut's work, even at this early, relatively undeveloped stage, is still vital, still affecting, still capable of helping us through this thing. Whatever it is.
Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub."