May 22, 2013
Jane Ciabattari on Kurt Vonnegut
Posted on Dec 25, 2009
Occasionally from the nation’s cultural attic come rare finds—last touches of genius brought to light—like this wondrous new collection of vintage Kurt Vonnegut short stories. “Look at the Birdie” includes 14 previously unpublished short stories that were written in the years just following World War II, when Vonnegut was back home after witnessing the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war.
The stories are accompanied by Vonnegut’s own whimsical line drawings, and introduced by Vonnegut’s longtime tennis partner, best friend and literary man about New York, Sidney Offit, who is involved now in compiling a future Library of America Vonnegut volume. In the 1950s and early ’60s, Offit notes, Vonnegut had a growing family to support and published regularly in The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, Argosy. “Hemingway! Fitzgerald! Faulkner! Steinbeck! Vonnegut!” Offit writes. “Their literary legacies survived the demise of so many of the magazines that provided them with generous fees, per word or per line, and introduced them to hundreds of thousands, even millions of readers.”
Why were these stories, with their lean language and supercharged imaginative range, unpublished? Offit speculates they were probably never submitted, as Vonnegut was always revising. “He was a master craftsman, demanding of himself perfection of the story, the sentence, the word. I remember the rolled up balls of paper in the wastebaskets of his workrooms in Bridgehampton and on East Forty-eighth Street.”
By midcentury, when he was writing these stories, Vonnegut was just beginning to publish. In 1950 he sold his first short story, “Report on the Barnhouse Effect,” to Knox Burger, then fiction editor at Collier’s, for $750—six weeks’ pay at the PR job he had at GE. After Vonnegut sold a second story, Burger urged him to quit his job. In 1952 Vonnegut published his dystopian first novel, “Player Piano,” which drew in part on his graduate work in anthropology at the University of Chicago. By 1969 he had entered the literary lexicon with the Vietnam-era anti-war classic “Slaughterhouse Five.”
In fact, Vonnegut has become such a literary icon that it is surprising—indeed humanizing—to read the letter that opens this volume. This is the nervous young father Vonnegut writing to his friend Walter J. Miller back in 1951, five weeks after leaving his GE job to write full time, justifying his choice to write what he called “high-grade, slick bombast” for the slicks. The alternative, Vonnegut wrote, was “something to please The Atlantic, Harpers, or The New Yorker. To do this would be to turn out something after the fashion of somebody-or-other. … The kicks are based largely on having passed off a credible counterfeit. … This is poor competition for the fat checks from the slicks.”
Vonnegut aimed to publish regularly in the publications his mother, before her suicide in 1944, had hoped to crack. “She was a good writer, it turned out, but she had no talent for the vulgarity the slick magazines required,” he said in an interview published in Paris Review in 1977. “Fortunately, I was loaded with vulgarity, so when I grew up I was able to make her dream come true. Writing for Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan and Ladies’ Home Journal and so on was as easy as falling off a log for me. I only wish she’d lived to see it.”
Most of the stories in this collection display Vonnegut’s inimitable sense of the absurd and his tragicomic voice. They are fully formed and polished, with a quick setup (husbands and wives are popular in this mix), a surreal or sci-fi undertone, and a twist at the end. There is a Midwestern quality to Vonnegut’s storytelling (he was, after all, born and raised in Indianapolis)—accessible, plainspoken, with a straight-faced irony.
The noirish title story is neatly constructed in a variation on the “man walked into a bar” plot. The opening lines: “I was sitting in a bar one night, talking rather loudly about a person I hated—and a man with a beard sat down beside me, and he said amiably, ‘Why don’t you have him killed.’ ” Before long the bearded man has drawn out the narrator, and his wife/accomplice, “a scrawny, thin-lipped woman with raddled hair and bad teeth,” has aimed a Rolleiflex with a flashgun at him and said “Look at the …” you know what. And so proceeds a slick bit of blackmail by a “murder counselor.”
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