AND SO IT GOES: KURT VONNEGUT: A LIFE by Charles J. Shields (Henry Holt), 528 pages, $30 paper. Rating: NNNN
If you're curious about what demons plagued Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle author Kurt Vonnegut, Charles J. Shields's bio of the mercurial and troubled writer is required reading.
Though it's been five years since Vonnegut died, And So It Goes is the first official biography.
Shields knows how to get to an author's core, having profiled Harper Lee in Mockingbird. Using the same kind of exhaustive research, he reviewed more than 1,500 letters and interviewed Vonnegut as well as dozens of relatives and friends.
An Indiana boy raised in a German-American home, young Vonnegut craved attention, feeling alienated from his constantly warring parents. His brother Bernard got hooked on science and won over Mom and Dad, giving rise to a resentment Vonnegut never really let go of. But Bernard also got him curious about science and engineering.
Vonnegut's Cornell days, his stint as a Second World War infantryman and the devastating Dresden bombing that later surfaced in his best-selling Slaughterhouse-Five are related in brisk, well-crafted prose. It's eerie to read how that Dresden scar ran so deep that Vonnegut felt little closure even after completing the book.
The bio keeps the intrigue coming in the stories of two ex-wives who seem to withhold nothing. As salacious as those tales are, the more telling details emerge from Vonnegut's views on creative writing and sharing stories he wants the world to hear.
The best parts of And So It Goes examine the ways his real-life drama bled into his fiction, something his fans may always have suspected but could never know for sure - until now.