Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction

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Look at the Birdie is a collection of fourteen previously unpublished short stories from one of the most original writers in all of American fiction. In this series of perfectly rendered vignettes, written just as he was starting to find his comic voice, Kurt Vonnegut paints a warm, wise, and funny portrait of life in post—World War II America–a world where squabbling couples, high school geniuses, misfit office workers, and small-town lotharios struggle to adapt to changing ...
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Look at the Birdie is a collection of fourteen previously unpublished short stories from one of the most original writers in all of American fiction. In this series of perfectly rendered vignettes, written just as he was starting to find his comic voice, Kurt Vonnegut paints a warm, wise, and funny portrait of life in post—World War II America–a world where squabbling couples, high school geniuses, misfit office workers, and small-town lotharios struggle to adapt to changing technology, moral ambiguity, and unprecedented affluence.

Here are tales both cautionary and hopeful, each brimming with Vonnegut's trademark humor and profound humanism. A family learns the downside of confiding their deepest secrets into a magical invention. A man finds himself in a Kafkaesque world of trouble after he runs afoul of the shady underworld boss who calls the shots in an upstate New York town. A quack psychiatrist turned "murder counselor" concocts a novel new outlet for his paranoid patients. While these stories reflect the anxieties of the postwar era that Vonnegut was so adept at capturing– and provide insight into the development of his early style–collectively, they have a timeless quality that makes them just as relevant today as when they were written. It's impossible to imagine any of these pieces flowing from the pen of another writer; each in its own way is unmistakably, quintessentially Vonnegut.

Featuring a Foreword by author and longtime Vonnegut confidant Sidney Offit and illustrated with Vonnegut' s characteristically insouciant line drawings, Look at the Birdie is an unexpected gift for readers who thought his unique voice had been stilled forever–and serves as a terrific introduction to his short fiction for anyone who has yet to experience his genius.

Read "Hello, Red" and "The Petrified Ants," two of the stories from the collection, as single-story e-books before Look at the Birdie goes on sale. Available wherever e-books are sold.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In his last interview, Kurt Vonnegut explained his long-lasting appeal: "I write in the voice of a child. That makes me readable in high school. [Laughs.] Not too many big sentences. But I hope that my ideas attract a lively dialogue, even if my sentences are simple. Simple sentences have always served me well. And I don't use semicolons….Also, I avoid irony. I don't like people saying one thing and meaning another." Being attuned to all those guidelines won't necessarily make a good writer, much less the creator of Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat's Cradle, but it will prepare you for the liveliness and directness of this collection of 14 previously unpublished pieces of Kurt Vonnegut fiction. So good, it only makes us miss him more.
Dave Eggers
The 14 stories in Look at the Birdie, none of them afraid to entertain, dabble in whodunnitry, science fiction and commanding fables of good versus evil. Why these stories went unpublished is hard to answer. They're polished, they're relentlessly fun to read, and every last one of them comes to a neat and satisfying end. For transmittal of moral instruction, they are incredibly efficient delivery devices…The most surprising thing about nearly all of these stories is how simple and straightforward they are. Vonnegut loved a good surprise ending, considered it an elementary virtue of storytelling—but most of the endings in Look at the Birdie are startling because they're straight-up happy.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
This collection of unpublished fiction sheds light on Vonnegut's early writing, but fails to measure up to the rest of his formidable oeuvre. The stories are brief, vividly imagined and sometimes carry a science-fictional twist with a moral (of sorts), not unlike “Harrison Bergeron.” In “Confido,” for instance, an inventor manufactures a device that whispers to its users everything they want to hear, with special emphasis on their worst desires and suspicions, while the title story describes an interaction at a bar between a disgruntled man and a self-styled “murder counselor” who has come up with an ingenious method for killing people. Sidney Offit, Vonnegut's longtime friend, notes in an introduction that it's possible these stories went unpublished because they didn't satisfy the author. To be sure, they lack the polish and humor of the author's best-known work. Nevertheless, for devotees, they provide an instructive view of Vonnegut's talent in the making. (Nov.)
Library Journal
This is the third collection of Vonnegut's early work, following Bagombo Snuff Box (1999) and Armageddon in Retrospect (2008). Most of the stories are typical examples of late 1950s black humor. "Confido" is an audio device that whispers a bitchy commentary on the shortcomings of the owner's real friends, like an inner Joan Rivers. In "Fubar," a marginalized office worker's life is upended by a new secretary from the Girl Pool. In "Hall of Mirrors," two detectives match wits with a hypnotist suspected of murder. All of the stories feel dated, and reading them is similar to watching reruns of old black-and-white TV shows. Vonnegut's America is almost unrecognizable: low tech, mostly blue collar, but with an underlying weirdness, as in Philip K. Dick's work from the same period. But the voice is clearly Vonnegut's (as are the illustrations), and that should be enough to win over fans. VERDICT These early stories lack the polish of Vonnegut's classic novels but track the development of his hugely influential mix of sf and black humor. Important for fans, but first-time readers should start with the better-known titles. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/09.]—Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles
Kirkus Reviews
Early, unpublished work from the much-lauded and much-loved American writer. The foreword by his friend Sidney Offit portrays Vonnegut (1922-2007) as being in his private life very much like the man we know from his fiction: a gimlet-eyed, cantankerous, but always openhearted observer of the human condition. Readers will discover traces of that Vonnegut here. In "Shout About It from the Housetops," a traveling salesman who finds himself in the middle of an embattled couple's marital drama thinks, "I was sure now that both the husband and wife were crazy, and that, if there were any children, the children would be crazy as bedbugs, too. There obviously wasn't anybody around who could be counted on to make regular payments on storm windows." These words capture both the character and the callous earnestness of a low-level capitalist. It's also clear that Vonnegut's gift for believably absurd monikers emerged early; anyone who admires the singular genius of the name Kilgore Trout will likely appreciate Fuzz Littler and K. Hollomon Weems. But despite the occasional flickers of brilliance, the collection as a whole is not very good. Offit mentions O. Henry in his foreword, but The Twilight Zone would be a more apt comparison; the stories' unvarying structure-setup followed by shocking twist-is strikingly similar to that of the TV show. Though obviously of value to anyone interested in Vonnegut's artistic development, this edition suffers from a lack of context. The pieces are not dated, nor are we told whether they went unpublished because they were rejected or because the author was dissatisfied with them. For ultra-committed fans and Vonnegut scholars only.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781440762307
  • Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
  • Publication date: 12/28/2009
  • Format: CD

Meet the Author

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut was a master of contemporary American literature. His black humor, satiric voice, and incomparable imagination first captured America’s attention in The Sirens of Titan in 1959 and established him, in the words of The New York Times, as “a true artist” with the publication of Cat’s Cradle in 1963. He was, as Graham Greene declared, “one of the best living American writers.” Mr. Vonnegut passed away in April 2007.

Sidney Offit has written two novels, two memoirs, and ten books for young readers. He was a senior editor of Intellectual Digest and a book editor of Politics Today, and for three decades he has served on the boards of the Authors Guild and PEN American Center. Currently, Mr. Offit is the curator emeritus of the George Polk Awards in Journalism. He lives in New York City with his wife, Avodah.


Born in 1922, Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. His architect father suffered great financial setbacks during the Depression and was unemployed for long stretches of time. His mother suffered from mental illness and eventually committed suicide in 1944, a trauma that haunted Vonnegut all his life. He attended Cornell in the early 1940s, but quit in order to enlist in the Army during WWII.

Vonnegut was shipped to Europe, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was captured behind enemy lines and incarcerated in a German prison camp. As a POW, he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden by Allied forces, an event of devastating magnitude that left an indelible impression on the young soldier.

After the war, Vonnegut returned home and married his high school sweetheart. In addition to two daughters and a son of their own, he and his first wife adopted three children orphaned in 1958 by the death of Vonnegut's sister Alice. (He and his second wife adopted another daughter.) The family lived in Chicago and Schenectady before settling in Cape Cod, where Vonnegut began to concentrate seriously on his writing. His first novel, the darkly dystopian Player Piano, was published in 1952 and met with moderate success. Three additional novels followed (including the critically acclaimed Cat's Cradle), but it was not until the publication of 1969's Slaughterhouse Five that Vonnegut achieved true literary stardom. Based on the author's wartime experiences in Dresden, the novel resonated powerfully in the social upheaval of the Vietnam era.

Although he is best known for his novels (a genre-blending mix of social satire, science fiction, surrealism, and black comedy), Vonnegut also wrote short fiction, essays, and plays (the best known of which was Happy Birthday, Wanda June). In addition, he was a talented graphic artist who illustrated many of his books and exhibited sporadically during his literary career. He died on April 11, 2007, after suffering irreversible brain injuries as a result of a fall.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Kurt Vonnegut
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 11, 1922
    2. Place of Birth:
      Indianapolis, Indiana
    1. Date of Death:
      April 11, 2007
    2. Place of Death:
      New York, New York

Read an Excerpt


The Summer had died peacefully in its sleep, and Autumn, as soft-spoken executrix, was locking life up safely until Spring came to claim it. At one with this sad, sweet allegory outside the kitchen window of her small home was Ellen Bowers, who, early in the morning, was preparing Tuesday breakfast for her husband, Henry. Henry was gasping and dancing and slapping himself in a cold shower on the other side of a thin wall.

Ellen was a fair and tiny woman, in her early thirties, plainly mercurial and bright, though dressed in a dowdy housecoat. In almost any event she would have loved life, but she loved it now with an overwhelming emotion that was like the throbbing amen of a church organ, for she could tell herself this morning that her husband, in addition to being good, would soon be rich and famous.

She hadn't expected it, had seldom dreamed of it, had been content with inexpensive possessions and small adventures of the spirit, like thinking about autumn, that cost nothing at all. Henry was not a moneymaker. That had been the understanding.

He was an easily satisfied tinker, a maker and mender who had a touch close to magic with materials and machines. But his miracles had all been small ones as he went about his job as a laboratory assistant at the Accousti-gem Corporation, a manufacturer of hearing aids. Henry was valued by his employers, but the price they paid for him was not great. A high price, Ellen and Henry had agreed amiably, probably wasn't called for, since being paid at all for puttering was an honor and a luxury of sorts. And that was that.

Or that had seemed to be that, Ellen reflected, for on the kitchen table lay a small tin box, a wire, and an earphone, like a hearing aid, a creation, in its own modern way, as marvelous as Niagara Falls or the Sphinx. Henry had made it in secret during his lunch hours, and had brought it home the night before. Just before bedtime, Ellen had been inspired to give the box a name, an appealing combination of confidant and household pet—Confido.

What is it every person really wants, more than food almost?" Henry had asked coyly, showing her Confido for the first time. He was a tall, rustic man, ordinarily as shy as a woods creature. But something had changed him, made him fiery and loud. "What is it?"

"Happiness, Henry?"

"Happiness, certainly! But what's the key to happiness?"

"Religion? Security, Henry? Health, dear?"

"What is the longing you see in the eyes of strangers on the street, in eyes wherever you look?"

"You tell me, Henry. I give up," Ellen had said helplessly.

"Somebody to talk to! Somebody who really understands! That's what." He'd waved Confido over his head. "And this is it!"

Now, on the morning after, Ellen turned away from the window and gingerly slipped Confido's earphone into her ear. She pinned the flat metal box inside her blouse and concealed the wire in her hair. A very soft drumming and shushing, with an overtone like a mosquito's hum, filled her ear.

She cleared her throat self-consciously, though she wasn't going to speak aloud, and thought deliberately, "What a nice surprise you are, Confido."

"Nobody deserves a good break any more than you do, Ellen," whispered Confido in her ear. The voice was tinny and high, like a child's voice through a comb with tissue paper stretched over it. "After all you've put up with, it's about time something halfway nice came your way."

"Ohhhhhh," Ellen thought depreciatively, "I haven't been through so much. It's been quite pleasant and easy, really."

"On the surface," said Confido. "But you've had to do without so much."

"Oh, I suppose—"

"Now, now," said Confido. "I understand you. This is just between us, anyway, and it's good to bring those things out in the open now and then. It's healthy. This is a lousy, cramped house, and it's left its mark on you down deep, and you know it, you poor kid. And a woman can't help being just a little hurt when her husband doesn't love her enough to show much ambition, either. If he only knew how brave you'd been, what a front you'd put up, always cheerful—"

"Now, see here—" Ellen objected faintly.

"Poor kid, it's about time your ship came in. Better late than never."

"Really, I haven't minded," insisted Ellen in her thoughts. "Henry's been a happier man for not being tormented by ambition, and happy husbands make happy wives and children."

"All the same, a woman can't help thinking now and then that her husband's love can be measured by his ambition," said Confido. "Oh, you deserve this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."

"Go along with you," said Ellen.

"I'm on your side," said Confido warmly.

Henry strode into the kitchen, rubbing his craggy face to a bright pink with a rough towel. After a night's sleep, he was still the new Henry, the promoter, the enterpriser, ready to lift himself to the stars by his own garters.

"Dear sirs!" he said heartily. "This is to notify you that two weeks from this date I am terminating my employment with the Accousti-gem Corporation in order that I may pursue certain business and research interests of my own. Yours truly—" He embraced Ellen and rocked her back and forth in his great arms. "Aha! Caught you chatting with your new friend, didn't I?"

Ellen blushed, and quickly turned Confido off. "It's uncanny, Henry. It's absolutely spooky. It hears my thoughts and answers them."

"Now nobody need ever be lonely again!" said Henry.

"It seems like magic to me."

"Everything about the universe is magic," said Henry grandly, "and Einstein would be the first to tell you so. All I've done is stumble on a trick that's always been waiting to be performed. It was an accident, like most discoveries, and none other than Henry Bowers is the lucky one."

Ellen clapped her hands. "Oh, Henry, they'll make a movie of it someday!"

"And the Russians'll claim they invented it," laughed Henry. "Well, let 'em. I'll be big about it. I'll divide up the market with 'em. I'll be satisfied with a mere billion dollars from American sales."

"Uh-huh." Ellen was lost in the delight of seeing in her imagination a movie about her famous husband, played by an actor that looked very much like Lincoln. She watched the simple-hearted counter of blessings, slightly down at the heels, humming and working on a tiny microphone with which he hoped to measure the minute noises inside the human ear. In the background, colleagues played cards and joshed him for working during the lunch hour. Then he placed the microphone in his ear, connected it to an amplifier and loudspeaker, and was astonished by Confido's first whispers on earth:

"You'll never get anywhere around here, Henry," the first, primitive Confido had said. "The only people who get ahead at Accousti-gem, boy, are the backslappers and snow-job artists. Every day somebody gets a big raise for something you did. Wise up! You've got ten times as much on the ball as anybody else in the whole laboratory. It isn't fair."
What Henry had done after that was to connect the microphone to a hearing aid instead of a loudspeaker. He fixed the microphone on the earpiece, so that the small voice, whatever it was, was picked up by the microphone, and played back louder by the hearing aid. And there, in Henry's trembling hands, was Confido, everybody's best friend, ready for market.

"I mean it," said the new Henry to Ellen. "A cool billion! That's a six-dollar profit on a Confido for every man, woman, and child in the United States."

"I wish we knew what the voice was," said Ellen. "I mean, it makes you wonder." She felt a fleeting uneasiness.
Henry waved the question away as he sat down to eat. "Something to do with the way the brain and the ears are hooked up," he said with his mouth full. "Plenty of time to find that out. The thing now is to get Confidos on the market, and start living instead of merely existing."

"Is it us?" said Ellen. "The voice—is it us?"

Henry shrugged. "I don't think it's God, and I don't think it's the Voice of America. Why not ask Confido? I'll leave it home today, so you can have lots of good company."

"Henry—haven't we been doing more than merely existing?"

"Not according to Confido," said Henry, standing and kissing her.

"Then I guess we haven't after all," she said absently.

"But, by God if we won't from now on!" said Henry. "We owe it to ourselves. Confido says so."

Ellen was in a trance when she fed the two children and sent them off to school. She came out of it momentarily, when her eight-year-old-son, Paul, yelled into a loaded school bus, "Hey! My daddy says we're going to be rich as Croesus!"
The school bus door clattered shut behind him and his seven-year-old sister, and Ellen returned to a limbo in a rocking chair by her kitchen table, neither heaven nor hell. Her jumbled thoughts permitted one small peephole out into the world, and filling it was Confido, which sat by the jam, amid the uncleared breakfast dishes.

The telephone rang. It was Henry, who had just gotten to work. "How's it going?" he asked brightly.

"As usual. I just put the children on the bus."

"I mean, how's the first day with Confido going?"

"I haven't tried it yet, Henry."

"Welllll—let's get going. Let's show a little faith in the merchandise. I want a full report with supper."

"Henry—have you quit yet?"

"The only reason I haven't is I haven't gotten to a typewriter." He laughed. "A man in my position doesn't quit by just saying so. He resigns on paper."

"Henry—would you please hold off, just for a few days?"

"Why?" said Henry incredulously. "Strike while the iron's hot, I say."

"Just to be on the safe side, Henry. Please?"

"So what's there to be afraid of? It works like a dollar watch. It's bigger than television and psychoanalysis combined, and they're in the black. Quit worrying." His voice was growing peevish. "Put on your Confido, and quit worrying. That's what it's for."

"I just feel we ought to know more about it."

"Yeah, yeah," said Henry, with uncharacteristic impatience. "O.K., O.K., yeah, yeah. See you."

Miserably, Ellen hung up, depressed by what she'd done to Henry's splendid spirits. This feeling changed quickly to anger with herself, and, in a vigorous demonstration of loyalty and faith, she pinned Confido on, put the earpiece in place, and went about her housework.

"What are you, anyway?" she thought. "What is a Confido?"

"A way for you to get rich," said Confido. This, Ellen found, was all Confido would say about itself. She put the same question to it several times during the day, and each time Confido changed the subject quickly—usually taking up the matter of money's being able to buy happiness, no matter what anyone said.

"As Kin Hubbard said," whispered Confido, " 'It ain't no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.' "

Ellen giggled, though she'd heard the quotation before. "Now, listen, you—" she said. All her arguments with Confido were of this extremely mild nature. Confido had a knack of saying things she didn't agree with in such a way and at such a time that she couldn't help agreeing a little.

"Mrs. Bowers—El-len," called a voice outside. The caller was Mrs. Fink, the Bowerses' next-door neighbor, whose driveway ran along the bedroom side of the Bowerses' home. Mrs. Fink was racing the engine of her new car by Ellen's bedroom window.

Ellen leaned out over the windowsill. "My," she said. "Don't you look nice. Is that a new dress? It suits your complexion perfectly. Most women can't wear orange."

"Just the ones with complexions like salami," said Confido.

"And what have you done to your hair? I love it that way. It's just right for an oval face."

"Like a mildewed bathing cap," said Confido.

"Well, I'm going downtown, and I thought maybe there was something I could pick up for you," said Mrs. Fink.

"How awfully thoughtful," said Ellen.

"And here we thought all along she just wanted to rub our noses in her new car, her new clothes, and her new hairdo," said Confido.

"I thought I'd get prettied up a little, because George is going to take me to lunch at the Bronze Room," said Mrs. Fink.

"A man should get away from his secretary from time to time, if only with his wife," said Confido. "Occasional separate vacations keep romance alive, even after years and years."

"Have you got company, dear?" said Mrs. Fink. "Am I keeping you from something?"

"Hmmmmm?" said Ellen absently. "Company? Oh—no, no."

"You acted like you were listening for something or something."

"I did?" said Ellen. "That's strange. You must have imagined it."

"With all the imagination of a summer squash," said Confido.

"Well, I must dash," said Mrs. Fink, racing her great engine.

"Don't blame you for trying to run away from yourself," said Confido, "but it can't be done—not even in a Buick."

"Ta ta," said Ellen.

"She's really awfully sweet," Ellen said in her thoughts to Confido. "I don't know why you had to say those awful things."

"Aaaaaaaaah," said Confido. "Her whole life is trying to make other women feel like two cents."

"All right—say that is so," said Ellen, "it's all the poor thing's got, and she's harmless."

"Harmless, harmless," said Confido. "Sure, she's harmless, her crooked husband's harmless and a poor thing, everybody's harmless. And, after arriving at that bighearted conclusion, what have you got left for yourself? What does that leave you to think about anything?"

"Now, I'm simply not going to put up with you anymore," said Ellen, reaching for the earpiece.

"Why not?" said Confido. "We're having the time of your life." It chuckled. "Saaaay, listen—won't the stuffy old biddies around here like the Duchess Fink curl up and die with envy when the Bowerses put on a little dog for a change. Eh? That'll show 'em the good and honest win out in the long run."

"The good and honest?"

"You—you and Henry, by God," said Confido. "That's who. Who else?"

Ellen's hand came down from the earpiece. It started up again, but as a not very threatening gesture, ending in her grasping a broom.

"That's just a nasty neighborhood rumor about Mr. Fink and his secretary," she thought.

"Heah?" said Confido. "Where there's smoke—"

"And he's not a crook."

"Look into those shifty, weak blue eyes, look at those fat lips made for cigars and tell me that," said Confido.

"Now, now," thought Ellen. "That's enough. There's been absolutely no proof—"

"Still waters run deep," said Confido. It was silent for a moment. "And I don't mean just the Finks. This whole neighborhood is still water. Honest to God, somebody ought to write a book about it. Just take this block alone, starting at the corner with the Kramers. Why, to look at her, you'd think she was the quietest, most proper . . ."

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Table of Contents

Foreword Sidney Offit Offit, Sidney

Letter from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., to Walter J. Miller, 1951 3

Confido 7

Fubar 21

Shout About It from the Housetops 37

Ed Luby's Key Club 51

A Song for Selma 103

Hall of Mirrors 121

The Nice Little People 139

Hello, Red 151

Little Drops of Water 167

The Petrified Ants 185

The Honor of a Newsboy 203

Look at the Birdie 213

King and Queen of the Universe 221

The Good Explainer 241

Illustrations 253

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