- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2008


By Kurt Vonnegut

Putnam, $24.95, 234 pages


Kurt Vonnegut is up to something. For almost two decades, he’d been grousing around, refusing to do any serious work. His last real novel, “Hocus Pocus,” was published in 1990. Most of what came after that was either half-baked or a retread. But now that he’s, well, dead, he’s come out with a pretty good collection of original short stories and other writings.

Ironic or slightly crazy fans will probably suggest this is because, like Billy Pilgrim from Mr. Vonnegut’s great novel “Slaughterhouse 5,” he’s not really dead. He’s simply come unstuck in time. How else could he manage to deliver an address in Indianapolis in late April of last year after he’d kicked the bucket a few weeks before?

Oh sure, skeptics could point out that his son Mark actually read it. But the speech is so personal and so immediate that as the younger Vonnegut read the final words, “And I thank you for your attention, and I’m out of here,” many in the audience must have looked over their shoulders to see if they couldn’t catch a glimpse of an old mustachioed man grinning mischievously back there somewhere, like a chain-smoking Tom Sawyer at his own funeral.

“Armageddon in Retrospect” begins with a reproduction of short letter that was sent by a young Pvt. Kurt Vonnegut to his father from Germany in May 1945. In these compact pages, the young soldier tells his old man why he’d received that “missing in action” notice in December. His son’s unit had been captured at the front by the German army, packed in box cars where “the floors were covered with fresh cow dung,” and they were sent to labor in Dresden.

That would have been a mild stroke of luck, except that American and British planes then firebombed Dresden in mid-February. “[T]heir labors,” wrote Mr. Vonnegut, “killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden - possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.”

The U.S. soldiers were then assigned the grim task of “carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation.” The remaining distraught civilians of Dresden, he wrote, “cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.”

The letter gives some hints of what would come. Here you had a young man with obvious literary gifts who had survived an experience so horrifying that the only way he could even try to grasp it was to fragment it and reduce it to biography. But he never really could understand. In the letter, he repeated what would become an obsession. The worst of it had touched him yet missed him, for reasons that were utterly alien to him.

In fact, he’d occasionally resort to actual aliens to explain this sort of things in his stories. Mr. Vonnegut’s characters in war and peace mostly shared his befuddlement with life. He gave us artists who were paralyzed because they couldn’t understand their gifts; religious leaders who didn’t believe a word of what they said and couldn’t understand why others would buy it; and scientists whose quests to quantify, understand and overcome life’s problems only made things much worse.

That made Kurt Vonnegut into a kind of modern day Job, if you can picture Job as an unreligious, shaggy-dog American from Indiana. The real tragedy and the confounding mystery for this relative innocent wasn’t so much that that many others had died but that he’d somehow lived through it.

This book contains stories of the survivors of wars and other great conflicts. It has American POWs driving their big hearted German supervisor nuts and getting him in trouble, by swapping recipes of what they’re going to eat when they got out. It has Louis Gigliano, the slick hustler in the concentration camp, trading his way to great riches at others’ expense and never getting his comeuppance. It has a medieval peasant who’s been pressed into service as a tax collector for “Robert the Horrible,” readying himself and his family to refuse to squeeze money out of other peasants and pay the terrible price.

Except for the brief, awful, “Unknown Soldier,” these stories are all familiar and yet surprising - and also sad, funny and almost 100 percent semicolon-free. They’ll give a laugh or two and maybe some granola for one’s gray matter to the casual reader and hope to us Vonnegut fans. We’re now curious to see what this dead man will come up with next.

m Jeremy Lott is author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.”

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