Kurt Vonnegut (above in 2005) has defenders. Son Mark Vonnegut has publicly objected to the portrayal of his father in Charles Shields’s biography. (Helayne Seidman/For The Washington Post)

In the introduction to “And So It Goes,” his excellent biography of Kurt Vonnegut, Charles J. Shields recalls an early conversation in which Vonnegut lashed out, with genuine venom, against such family members as his brother, Bernard, a man he had written about with great affection in his 1976 novel, “Slapstick.” A few pages later, Shields recounts an earlier incident in which Vonnegut, incensed by the remarks of a “smart aleck” theatergoer, invited the man into the parking lot and knocked him to the ground. These vignettes serve as early warning signals that the portrait we’re about to encounter — the portrait of a world-renowned humanist — will contain some dark and unexpected revelations.

Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis in 1922, the youngest of three children. His father was a moderately successful architect. His mother, Edith, was a distant, emotionally unstable woman whose eventual suicide would haunt Vonnegut throughout his life. Shields sketches Vonnegut’s adolescent years with admirable efficiency, isolating those elements that would prove most significant: the life-
altering effects of the Depression, Kurt’s first glimpse of the importance of extended families as antidotes to loneliness, his discovery of humor as a means of asserting himself in a highly competitive family. A predilection for irreverent wit followed him from Indianapolis to Cornell University, where he was an indifferent student and inveterate joker whose primary interest was writing for the college newspaper. His abortive academic career ended with the advent of World War II and his enlistment in the infantry.

Vonnegut arrived in the European theater in December 1944. Captured almost immediately, he spent several harrowing months as a prisoner of war and was eventually transferred to a labor battalion in Dresden, Germany. On Feb. 13, 1945, when the Dresden firebombing began, he and his fellow prisoners were safely sequestered in an underground bunker. When he emerged, he encountered a scene of such stupefying devastation that it colored his worldview forever, providing the impetus for his signature work of fiction, “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Moving on from the war years, Shields gives us a judicious, tightly compressed account of more than 60 years in the life and career of a complex, often contradictory man. Vonnegut’s personal life was never easy and rarely free of turmoil. After marrying Jane Cox and brief stints as a student at the University of Chicago and a PR copywriter at the Schenectady, N.Y., branch of General Electric, he moved his growing family to Cape Cod, Mass., where he attempted to earn his living writing fiction.

Life grew considerably more complex when his sister and her husband died within days of each other, leaving behind four young children. All four were absorbed into the Vonnegut household, though the youngest was eventually adopted by a childless cousin. The resulting pressures — financial and otherwise — nearly overwhelmed Vonnegut, who frequently treated his suddenly expanded family with a harshness bordering on contempt.

”And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life” by Charles J. Shields (Henry Holt)

It’s one of the central ironies of this book that a man who constantly stressed the importance of community and family, who famously advocated kindness and decency, should find it so difficult to embody those values in his day-to-day life. But it’s worth noting that the late author’s son, Mark Vonnegut, has publicly objected to this portrayal of his father, claiming, “Shields had to ignore most of what I and other people who knew Kurt and most of what he read in the letters to come up with these shocking truths about a beloved writer.”

Whatever the facts might be, it’s clear that, despite this domestic upheaval, Vonnegut continued to work doggedly at the craft of fiction, honing his skills by writing slick commercial stories and slowly developing his distinctive style in such brilliantly original novels as “Cat’s Cradle” and “Mother Night.” He remained, for years, the very definition of a cult writer: admired by few, but ignored by the public at large. All of that would change for good when “the Big Ka-BOOM” occurred: the publication of “Slaughterhouse-Five” in 1969.

That novel had been gestating for more than 20 years, while Vonnegut searched for a suitable approach to this urgent but intractable material. He finally found one that combined science fiction, metafiction, autobiography and whimsy into a fractured, deeply personal narrative that took his Dresden experience and captured it “brokenly, hauntingly — the way it came to him in dreams.” The book brought Vonnegut a good deal more than wealth, fame and critical acclaim: It transformed him into a public figure, a role he would inhabit for the rest of his life.

That long, eventful life, which ended in 2007, encompassed a protracted divorce from his first wife, a troubled second marriage to photographer Jill Krementz, multiple bouts of depression, one suicide attempt, a successful second career as a public speaker and an ongoing role as unofficial spokesman for the lonely and disenfranchised. He was rarely happy but rarely disengaged, and he continued to produce a steady stream of novels and nonfiction books. Many of them were derided, often unfairly, by critics. Almost all of them were widely read.

In Shields’s unsparing but ultimately convincing portrait, Vonnegut was alternately generous and abrasive, kind and petulant, sentimental and emotionally remote. He was a man defined by his contradictions and determined, at all costs, to have his say. In “And So It Goes,” Shields pays Vonnegut the compliment of looking beyond his status as cultural icon, showing us the gifted, all-too-human figure beneath. The result is a first-rate biography and a cogent work of social and cultural history. Anyone with even a passing interest in Vonnegut’s career will come away with a clearer, more balanced understanding of one of the 20th century’s most beguiling — and influential — fictional voices.

Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”


Kurt Vonnegut:

A Life

By Charles J. Shields

Henry Holt.

513 pp. $30