Vonnegut’s Dark Side and What Lurks Behind a Writer’s Words

A negative tell-all has Kurt Vonnegut fans glowering. And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles Shields depicts the literary giant as a sad, angry, and sometimes cruel man. Shield’s look at Vonnegut delves into his personal woes, which included a failed first marriage, a bad second marriage, and fall-outs with his kids.

This doesn’t sit well with critics. The Guardian calls it “unsparing in its portrayal of Vonnegut’s dark side.”  The New York Times called Shields’s portrayal “sad, often heartbreaking”.  I can understand not wanting to read the harsh realities of  someone’s life, especially someone who wrote funny, witty novels sprinkled with obvious fondness for the written word.

Too bad life doesn’t imitate art.

Honestly, from what I’ve read, I’m surprised Vonnegut wasn’t downright insane.  He wasn’t exactly dealt an easy hand. When Vonnegut was in the Army and home on a pass visiting his parents, his mother committed suicide. This was on Mother’s Day. Later, as a P.O.W. in World War II, he was torchered by a German guard. Following these events, his sister and her husband died within the space of a day and Vonnegut took their kids in with his own, despite not being emotionally or financially up for the job.

On a side note, a professor in graduate school once told me he was at a party at Vonnegut’s  back in the ’70s. Apparently Vonnegut was drunk and yelling about how much he hated poets. He then turned to said-professor and chastised him for being one of those “lousy poets” to which said-professor took a swing at Vonnegut and hit him in the jaw.

Personally, I  don’t want the dirt on those who write my favorite books. When I found out that Ray Bradbury is cantankerous, I was heartbroken.  How could a man who wrote lines like, “There are those days which seem a taking in of breath which, held, suspends the whole earth in its waiting.” be a grouch?  Despite this desire to preserve my smoochy-boochy writer fantasy, there are some writers who make their demons into their career and it’s no big surprise to learn they went batshit crazy in the end. Take Sylvia Plath, for example. Her dark fantasies made incredible poetry and I read nearly every one of her biographies with salacious delight.

In the end, the I-don’t-want-to-meet-my-hero-because-he-might-be-an-asshole choice might be the best one. Or maybe we should just adjust our expectations into not believing that everyone should make lemonade when life hands them lemons. It’s hard not to expect lemonade, however, from a writer who wrote about aliens that look like toilet plungers.


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