At last: the Vonnegut book readers of the late modern master have been waiting for.
Since his passing in 2007, Kurt Vonnegut has inspired an ever-growing number of works, including attempts at retrospective critical analysis and biography, as well as the publication of previously uncollected short stories. For the most part, these efforts have been like guests at a wake, trying hard to put the best face on what is finally an irretrievable loss.
What a pleasure, then, for this collection of Vonnegut’s letters to come steaming round the bend. It’s his voice again, live as ever, clear and unvarnished, with the pop and crackle of a hardwood fire on an Autumn night.
We have Dan Wakefield, a longtime friend of Vonnegut’s and, like Vonnegut, a native son of Indianapolis, to thank for this book. “Reading these letters has allowed me to know my friend Kurt Vonnegut better and to appreciate him even more,” Wakefield writes in his introduction. Wakefield combed through roughly 1,000 letters to arrive at this collection, which, to a great extent, reflects what it was like to be a writer at a very particular time in American literary history.
Vonnegut worked hard to make a career for himself when magazines like Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post made a practice of paying top dollar for short stories. As he wrote to the widow of one of his early compadres, John D. MacDonald: “If our school of writing had a name, what would be a good one? I suggest this: 'The Professionals.’”
And so the larger portion of letters in this book addresses, in one way or another, the business of writing when, in fact, writing could be a business. Vonnegut was always keenly aware of himself as an artist living within a capitalistic system and the need, therefore, to be entrepreneurial. He worried and griped about payments and agents, diversified by hitting the lecture circuit and never tired of angling after other forms, especially the theater.
The most moving letters found here, though, are those addressed to Vonnegut’s daughter Nanny, in the wake of the dissolution of his marriage to Jane Cox, mother of Nanny and her two siblings, Mark and Edith. One senses in this sequence, written mostly during the 1970’s, Vonnegut’s desperate love for his children, his need to try and make things right between them and, at the same time, a tragic dawning as he allows that his greatest wounds are probably self-inflicted. “Just know that I love you,” he writes, “and that I wish you knew me, for good or ill, better than you do.”
Vonnegut’s writing, as Wakefield points out, “like his conversation, is often surprising, because it makes you laugh and makes you think... ” This plain-spoken quality, one that Vonnegut never ceased to attribute to his education and upbringing in Indianapolis, is generously displayed throughout Letters. For those of us that miss Kurt Vonnegut, it makes this collection a gift. Pick up this book, it’s like having him by your side.