Armageddon in Retrospect

Once he got famous, the late Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) wasn’t shy about sticking damn near every piece of writing he’d ever seen fit to put his name on between hard covers sooner or later, from dusty magazine stories to speeches and indignant letters. Especially in old age, he was also fond of repeating observations, jokes, and favorite quotations he apparently thought we hadn’t gotten the first time. That’s why longtime addicts know that a lot of 2005’s bestselling A Man Without a Country — his final book to see print in his lifetime — deserved the title Kurt Vonnegut’s Greatest Hits. So any intelligent buyer can probably guess going in that the previously unseen work now collected for publication as Armageddon in Retrospect on the first anniversary of Vonnegut’s death last April is unlikely to be top-notch stuff.

And so what if it isn’t? Sorry, but to this reader, the least of Vonnegut has more value than whatever John Updike or Joan Didion cooked up on whatever they think was the best day of their lives. What’s annoying is that the Vonnegut estate and/or G. P. Putnam, the book’s publisher, have opted to present Armageddon in Retrospect with nary a hint to when any of the material in it was written. Gee, could someone possibly be trying to foster an illusion — note the timely sounding title — that we’re getting A Man Without a Country, Part Two, not a collection made up primarily of patently early fiction I’m guessing Kurt stuffed in a drawer something like half a century ago? Compared to the revolting mania Ernest Hemingway’s heirs have shown for carving up Papa’s sad wads of unpublished manuscripts into finished-looking commercial books instead of the scholarly editions they deserve, this is minor-league fudging.

In most of these pieces, the Vonnegut style is still in embryo, and one of his great gifts — his unfailing sense of the point of whatever he was up to, no matter how slapdash the results looked to his less astute reviewers and colleagues — is still relatively shaky. But we’re watching him figure out how to be Kurt Vonnegut, and that’s fascinating and moving. Aficionados of Slaughterhouse-Five won’t need to hear more to send them pelting to bookstores than the news that four different stories here — augmented by a nonfiction lament called “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets” and a facsimile of Pfc. Vonnegut’s 1945 letter informing his family he’s safe and sound — are his first attempts to come to grips with the key event of his life: his seven months as a German POW after being captured during the Battle of the Bulge late in World War II, including his survival of the Allied firebombing of Dresden.

Outdoing Hiroshima in numbers of dead, the destruction of Dresden was the biggest civilian massacre perpetrated by our side in the war. In 1969, it also became the subject of Vonnegut’s most famous novel, which turned him overnight from an oddball cult writer into a campus hero. Now we’re getting to read what Slaughterhouse-Five was smelted out of — the data an apprentice writer thought could be put to good fictional use but which Vonnegut’s unfailing sense of the point convinced him to minimize or omit later on. The final novel is delicately chiseled and mordantly flippant. Partly because they’re clumsier, the stories give us insights into what the whole jangled mess — alternately mundane, disorienting, and horrific — must have seemed like to him when he was still trying to assimilate his memories.

With a revealing mix of disgust and guilt, three of the POW stories hinge on Americans behaving badly: working the angles ? la Stalag 17 in “Brighten Up,” pillaging civilian homes after being liberated in “Spoils,” and finally scheming to murder one another in the most ambitious story, “Just You and Me, Sammy,” in which it’s possible to detect the germ of Vonnegut’s later novel Mother Night. (The fourth, “Guns Before Butter,” is about food-obsessed GIs finding common ground with an elderly German guard they inadvertently get into trouble.) It’s always worth remembering Vonnegut was raised virtuously middle-class in Indianapolis and never disavowed his upbringing’s values. Seeing how capable his fellow Americans were of crassness, greed, or worse when in dire straits plainly demoralized him.

Some of that does resurface in Slaughterhouse-Five, but it’s been reorganized into one element in a bigger picture, and it’s recorded without outrage. While it would be interesting to learn if the stories were ever offered for publication, my hunch is that Vonnegut held them back because he knew Dresden was the one experience he had to get right and didn’t want to bungle it. His preface to the novel mentions plenty of trial efforts he’d written and abandoned, possibly including these.

Several other pieces reveal that what he’d seen and undergone in 1944 and 1945 bothered him enough that he was groping for different perspectives to articulate it. In “Great Day,” an innocent living in a happy tomorrow where armies are for show gets zapped back to World War I’s killing fields by a war-loving commanding officer. In “Happy Birthday, 1951,” an old man in postwar Europe is depressed by a boy’s excitement when they come across a decrepit tank.

Even though both tales suffer from mistakes Vonnegut would later avoid — hick first-person narration that lays on the na?vet? too thick in one case and an overly simplistic contrast in the other — they’re affecting as reflections of the young vet’s trauma. More successful and therefore troubling is “The Commandant’s Desk,” told through the eyes of a Czech cabinetmaker to whom the victorious Americans in some future war have simply replaced Russian and German goons as his oppressors. But picturing its author trying — if he did — to get something like that into a U.S. magazine during the Eisenhower or JFK era is grim.

Because so much of Vonnegut’s best-known work makes use of fantasy premises and cartoonish techniques, he’s sometimes not unreasonably called an experimental writer. But if the shoe fits, that makes him the only experimental writer in U.S. literary history whose books sold like hotcakes for decades to a huge audience. Until TV killed the market for commercial magazine fiction in the early ’60s, he’d spent a decade writing and selling just that to the likes of Cosmo and The Saturday Evening Post, and talk about terrific training. I can’t recall a sentence of his that would confuse a bright 12-year-old.

To some of our culturati, that’s always been a put-down, not a compliment. The obnoxious idea that literature should read like gobbledygook to nonspecialists got a boost from no less than Toni Morrison on Oprah Winfrey’s show some years back. When Oprah confessed to trouble getting the drift of her good friend Morrison’s knottier sentences, the Nobel winner took it as a compliment. My considerable respect for Morrison has never quite recovered.

Making yourself understood is a pretty basic test of literary skill, and even Faulkner didn’t glory in incomprehensibility for incomprehensibility’s sake. His books are difficult because they’re trying to convey more than the English language can reasonably accommodate. Also because he was sozzled a lot of the time, but you can’t have everything. Vonnegut’s genius is that his originality is topped only by how accessible he is.

It’s evident that he’s still learning his craft in these stories. Even so, he takes it for granted his job isn’t merely to attitudinize or string nifty-sounding words together but to create situations and dialogue likely to keep people interested for however long he needs to get his ideas about life across. That’s what talented hacks do, too, but the difference is that they either don’t have ideas about life or misrepresent them for popularity’s sake. When you read the short fiction Vonnegut earned a comfortable living turning out for mass-circulation magazines in the 1950s — the best collected in 1968’s Welcome to the Monkey House, the rest in 1999’s Bagombo Snuff Box — you can’t help but be impressed at his ability to stay true to himself and his then unconventional outlook while delivering the kind of entertainment that kept the checks coming in.

Even in his novels, he always respects his readers by assuming they’ll find better things to do with their time if he can’t keep them beguiled, amused, and surprised while he’s dramatizing what matters most to him. Above all, that means he makes lots of jokes; the only better ones in our literature are mostly in Huckleberry Finn. Even so, most of the work collected in Armageddon in Retrospect is a long way from being as “imbued with his trademark humor” as the jacket copy claims, suggesting that even Vonnegut started out thinking writers need to sound solemn to be serious. Let’s all be grateful he learned better.

Only his devotees are sure to find this book worthwhile. But if you aren’t a devotee — that is, if you don’t already swear by Mother Night, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions, not to mention, oh, Galapagos, Slapstick, and so on and on — there are honestly only two explanations I can think of. The nice one is that you’re in for a treat, and never mind what the other one is. It’s too rude.