In the early 1950s Kurt Vonnegut became the manager of a Saab dealership in Cape Cod, a job which often involved him taking prospective clients out on test drives. Keen to demonstrate the Saab’s front-wheel drive, Vonnegut would take corners at a tremendous lick, leaving his often elderly passengers ‘sickly and green’ afterwards.
Vonnegut’s early writings left a number of editors feeling pretty sickly and green too. As the rejection slips piled up, he cast around desperately for some alternative source of income. He tried to flog a board-game he’d invented, as well as a bowtie made from ribbon the Atomic Energy Commission used to cordon off highly radioactive areas which he was convinced would prove a big hit.
He also had a try-out for a sports magazine called Sports Illustrated. Told to write an article about a racehorse that had bolted before the starting gun had gone off, Vonnegut stared at a blank piece of paper for an hour, wrote, ‘The horse jumped over the fucking fence’, then went home.
The defining event in his life had happened in 1945 when he spent 24 hours in an underground meat locker in Dresden as the city above was flattened by Allied bombing — he later won a Purple Heart for his war service. In one of his earliest letters here, Vonnegut writes about he experience in dry, Hemingway-ish tones: ‘The RAF’s combined labour killed 250,000 people in 24 hours … But not me.’
Twenty years on, he turned his time in Dresden into Slaughterhouse Five, and all at once he never had to sell Saabs or invent mad bow-ties again. The book became a tremendous hit all over the world — apart from his home town of Indianapolis. After Vonnegut had done a signing there in 1969, he wrote to a friend: ‘I signed 13 books in two hours, every one of them to a relative. Word of honor.’
His letters lollop along in an amiable, unfettered, disjointed sort of way, shot through with sudden vivid conjunctions — much like his novels. ‘I stopped off to see your mother in Forth Worth,’ he writes to his first wife, Jane. ‘She’s in a smashing new hospital with a woman who was struck by a tornado while asleep.’
Often — rather too often — Vonnegut’s books give the impression that he only had the most tenuous hold on the narrative. This, it turns out, is just how he felt. ‘I wish to hell I knew what the book is really about’, he writes of one of his later novels, Bluebeard. ‘I should know by this time. My God — I’m on page 305.’
Along the way, his first marriage breaks up.
Sometimes when I talk to her I feel like the Ambassador to New Zealand presenting his credentials to the Foreign Minister of Uruguay. It’s formal and strange and not at all sexy. I can’t get it up for her anymore…We’ll fix it up.
They didn’t. Then his second marriage crashes and burns. And then, in early 2000, Vonnegut himself went up in smoke when an ashtray overturned and started a fire in his New York apartment. Having often complained that the Pall Malls he smoked hadn’t lived up to their promise on the packet to kill him, Vonnegut was forced to admit that this time they’d very nearly done so.
Success brought him some unexpected benefits: ‘Dear Ms Adams,’ he writes to one correspondent, ‘I was charmed and amused that you should want me to be a judge in the 1976 Miss USA Beauty Pageant.’ It brought him unexpected friendships too, including one with the poet Allen Ginsberg. The two men met at a dinner and got on so well that they ended up holding hands for the rest of the evening.
What it didn’t bring him was happiness. Vonnegut, who once described himself as a ‘a monopolar depressive descended from monopolar depressives’ — his mother had committed suicide when he was 22 — was dogged throughout his life by depression and self-doubt. As he grew older, the self-doubt steadily deepened. In his late seventies, he likened his writing to the final stages of a chess game ‘with very few opportunities or pieces left on the board’.
This collection of letters has been crisply edited by Dan Wakefield, who also contributes an unusually glutinous introduction. In essence, this puts Vonnegut forward as a prime candidate for canonisation. ‘For the record let me say of Kurt Vonnegut, “He’s up in heaven now”,’ Wakefield writes in conclusion, which may leave readers — British readers in particular — pining for the sick-bag.
Yet there was something fundamentally goodhearted about Vonnegut. For all his gloom and cantankerousness, he never entirely lost his faith in human nature. A pregnant woman once wrote asking him if it was wrong to bring a child into such a flawed world. Vonnegut wrote back telling her that ‘what made being alive almost worthwhile for me was all the saints I met almost anywhere — people who were behaving decently in an indecent society.’