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Book Review: And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields

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And So It Goes By Charles J. ShieldsFor those of us who grew up in the 1960s, Kurt Vonnegut brings to mind images of sit-ins, anti-war demonstrations, and those newsreels scenes associated with the social revolution from that era of Viet Nam, the Draft, and Nixon. We baby boomers of course also know Kurt Vonnegut for Slaughterhouse Five which was also a popular movie at that time.

So it comes as quite a surprise to discover that Kurt Vonnegut was actually more conservative and part of the “establishment” than his public persona portrayed.  Rather than the wise shaman-like soothsayer who many in the ‘60s viewed as a spokesperson for the generation, Kurt Vonnegut was only a man, confused and lonely — a human being who had been traumatized by the ravages of war when he was a young man.

An artist and writer, yes, but Kurt Vonnegut was blocked for decades; he was unable to write from his heart, to air his own inner truths.  We learn here in And So It Goes that Kurt Vonnegut was hardly able to lead himself let alone anyone else.

Biographer Charles J. Shields got to know Kurt Vonnegut in mid-2006, less than a year before the Mr. Vonnegut’s death.  Kurt Vonnegut had been looking for a biographer amid new interest in his works because of an unpopular war, political corruption, and other issues similar to those in the 1960s.  But also, he wanted a biographer most likely because at his age – in his eighties – he was looking for someone who could gather the pieces of his life together into one comprehensible whole.

Beginning the relationship through correspondence, Mr. Shields told the author that there would be others who “could cobble together a so-so version of your life” – something he said “will happen soon” because of renewed interest in the author.  But Mr. Shields told him the he was “the guy for the job – for doing it right, that is” — citing his ability as a “good researcher and writer.”

In these respects – research, writing, and getting it right – Charles J. Shields more than does the job of compiling the eighty-some years of Kurt Vonnegut’s life into one complete whole picture.  Not an easy job either given the complicated personality of Kurt Vonnegut, his often-conflicting relationships and decisions, and the fact that Mr. Shields had only met with Mr. Vonnegut a couple of times before the octogenarian fell down the steps of his home, lay in a coma, and died in April, 2007.

Mr. Shields relies on his ability to research all aspects of his subject’s life including those people in Mr. Vonnegut’s life who influenced him and who he had an impact on personally.  And So It Goes has copious end notes worth reading.  Charles J. Shields cites interviews with family, friends, work, and business associates, public records, plus a large collection of private letters, “most of them never seen before,” according to the author.  But Mr. Shields also includes side material in the end notes that – while not adding new information – adds to the beauty and color, helping to paint Mr. Vonnegut’s life in more vivid detail.

What makes And So It Goes an enjoyable read is that, rather than just citing facts, dates, events, etc., Charles J. Shields turns Kurt Vonnegut’s life into a readable story.  You actually live through the Battle of the Bulge; you experience the cold starkness of being a POW in Slaughterhouse Five; you experience the horror of the fire-bombing of Dresden along with Kurt Vonnegut.  These experiences permanently shaped Kurt Vonnegut.

Mr. Shields takes us to all the places and events and we experience them, through the writing, and gain understanding into areas perhaps that were hidden even to Mr. Vonnegut himself.  We learn that Mr. Vonnegut was expected to return from World War II and fit into American life as if nothing had happened; get a job, get married, have children, etc., etc.  Kurt Vonnegut had been a POW at Dresden along with several other American soldiers captured after the Battle of the Bulge.  Starved, beaten, forced to work in freezing conditions by the Nazis, Mr. Vonnegut survived but he witnessed others who didn’t; it was these images that plagued him for the rest of his life.

We learn from And So It Goes that the events of Dresden defined what Kurt Vonnegut would become as a writer, but this would take decades.  Coming home from the war, Mr. Vonnegut made his living writing short fiction for the magazines of the 1950’s and writing public relations articles for General Electric – neither of these exposed his heart but were only a way to put the proverbial bread on the table.  We learn of his internal struggles to write his war experiences, his failures to come to terms with being able to do so, his drinking, smoking, and marital infidelities.

Charles J. Shields reveals the people and circumstances that finally broke open the blocks, allowing Kurt Vonnegut to finally write something real.  We learn here what finally happened that allowed Mr. Vonnegut to pour forth his heart and feelings so that he would pen what would become his most-famous work — Slaughterhouse Five — finally breaking open the gates that had shut up what he experienced as a POW in World War II.

If you are familiar with Kurt Vonnegut’s stories, And So It Goes will be a satisfying literary feast for you because you will deepen your insight and bring new understanding into the life of an author you already feel you know.  If, on the other hand, you know nothing about Kurt Vonnegut and you are looking for something fresh, And So It Goes will be enjoyable for you because here you will get to know someone interesting, even though perhaps disturbing, but who has made his mark on the world and still continues to be an influence.

Charles J. Shields is also the author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee and Mythmaker: The Story of J. K. Rowling (Who Wrote That?).

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