Life Is No Way to Treat an Animal
“Yes, I received your letter yesterday/ (About the time the doorknob broke)/ When you asked me how I was doing/ Was that some kind of joke?” – Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row”
Kurt Vonnegut: Letters by Kurt Vonnegut and Dan Wakefield (Delacorte Press, $35.00, 464 pages)
Kurt Vonnegut’s Letters, published posthumously (Vonnegut died in 2007 due to complications related to a fall at the age of 84), is a compilation of letters he wrote spanning seven decades. Longtime friend, fellow Indianapolis native, novelist and screenwriter Dan Wakefield edited the book.
There is a cottage industry that exists on how to make money off dead artists. Some initial skepticism as to whether or not a Vonnegut fan, or literature buff in general, would actually enjoy the book or glean any insight into the man is natural. Not to worry. The book is excellent.
Reading Vonnegut’s work can be an adventure, both literally and figuratively. To put the pieces of his work, career and life together from his perspective with his own words and thoughts in personal communications is quite fascinating. They move the reader one step beyond the musings of his essays and non-fiction work. For those of us who did not have the pleasure of hearing him speak, and obviously now never will, Letters is both as close as one could get, and in some cases, a more intimate experience.
To no surprise, Letters takes the reader through the early years when the writer was struggling to find an audience and make a buck. The book chronicles his feelings toward his first wife, Jane, before, during and after the breakup. Vonnegut held a warm affinity for her throughout his lifetime. The split with his second wife, Jill, was far less amiable. And, from a man who implored us to cultivate deeper relationships with our fellow humans, it is his first person portrayal of feelings and thoughts about those closest to him that are the most compelling aspect of the book. The witty, warm, intelligent, ironic, and sardonic Vonnegut is on display at all times.
Vonnegut’s post-divorce longing for a closer relationship with daughter Nanny is riveting, as are his thoughts on writing and the industry. Sadly, especially for a fan, it is downright sad to experience his account of the end of his life when the well of ideas is drying up and loneliness and boredom permeate his existence (Fates Worse Than Death, indeed).
For those of us inclined to honor the man, we should perhaps simply live by the last words of advice he wrote to be delivered to an audience: “And how should be behave during this Apocalypse? We should be unusually kind to one another, certainly. But we should stop being so serious. Jokes help a lot. And get a dog, if you don’t already have one… I’m out of here.”
Dave Moyer is an education administrator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.