Who was the real Kurt Vonnegut? For a man who so often seemed at pains to present himself as a pessimist or even a fatalist — he wrote in his final collection of essays, A Man without a Country (2005), of his goal to file a lawsuit against the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company for manufacturing products that promised to kill him but failed to deliver — Vonnegut could express, and often seemed to embody, the sweetest of sentiments.
Born in Indianapolis in 1922, he exuded an easygoing Midwestern courtliness. His voice was warm, resonant, and quick to cackle, and he was the owner of the friendliest bushy mustache since Samuel Clemens. In his great novels, including Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and Breakfast of Champions (1973), he was not merely offering the stuff of fiction — characters, themes, and plotlines — but also himself: He relentlessly intruded into his narratives. In his book Reality Hunger, writer David Shields argued that Vonnegut’s opening first-person passages in Slaughterhouse-Five eclipsed the actual novel that followed: “The prologue to Slaughterhouse-Five is the best thing Vonnegut ever wrote.”
Indeed, as the years marched on and he found it increasingly taxing to churn out straight novels, Vonnegut’s autobiographical voice became his main selling point. His last novel, Timequake (1997), contains a first-person passage that exemplifies what had become his signature perspective and tone, weary but pacific. Recounting the pleasures and irritations of going into the city to purchase stationery, Vonnegut writes, “Out into the world I go! Muggers! Autograph hounds! Junkies! People with real jobs! Maybe an easy lay! United Nations functionaries and diplomats!” This might sound sarcastic, but a few pages later, when he writes of his unrequited love for a female employee at the Postal Convenience Station, Vonnegut seems to be sincere: “Every day, . . . she hangs new dingle-dangles from her ears and around her neck. Sometimes her hair is up, sometimes it’s down.” With a few choice words, Vonnegut hits on one of life’s most basic joys: simply making contact with a fellow human being.