Vonnegut Undiscovered: For a Reason

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Dial Press, 297 pages
★★ ½

Readers and writers both have their salad days—readers when they fall hard for a writer and work their way through that writer's oeuvre, and writers when they reach the height of their powers. Back in the 1970s I devoured Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1922-2007) like a starving man who crashed a Roman banquet. Forget Cat's Cradle; back then, all Vonnegut was the cat's meow. Well before he died in 2007, I prided myself with having read all of his novels, short stories, and important essays. Since then, however, unpublished Vonnegut short stories have been discovered, so I guess that makes me the fool for thinking myself a completist, right?

Maybe not if we go back to the adjective "important." Look at the Birdie first came out in 2009 and I didn't rush to read these 14 previously unpublished short stories because other such stories disappointed me. But when Amazon reissued them and briefly offered them for $1.99, I took the bait. The verdict? I'm glad I didn't spend more. Look at the Birdie isn't terrible, but there's not much to recommend it unless you are new to Vonnegut's work, in which case let me envy the treat you have in store when you finally bite into masterpieces such as Mother Night (1961), Slaughterhouse Five (1969), and Breakfast of Champions (1973).

As for Look at the Birdie, a few things must be said. The most obvious is that Vonnegut was not yet the writer of the aforementioned classics. Most of the tales were written in the 1950s before he found his voice. Mostly they were a young writer's attempt to earn money by getting magazines to publish him. These offerings weren't "unpublished" because he stuck them in the back of his sock drawer and forgot they were there; they were rejected in an era in which there were many outlets for aspiring fiction writers. Righty so; they're at best mediocre. Like many creative people—artists, musicians, poets, playwrights—Vonnegut tried (too) hard to emulate his heroes: O Henry, Twain, Orwell, Shaw, Swift, Wells…. Once he became the Vonnegut we know, he cast out most of the other voices in his head. (There was always a bit of Twain and Swift.) Second, these are pieces from the 1950s that are time bound, not unstuck in time.

Does a story about finding what looks to be a butter knife but is actually the spaceship of tiny beings entice you? There's no reason "The Nice Little People" should, given that all the aliens do is be tiny—and nice. Smallness also gets a workout in "Petrified Ants," which is actually veiled commentary of Soviet bureaucracy. It won't mean much if you're too young to remember the USSR!

We see Vonnegut trying on genres to see if they fit. "Ed Luby's Key Club" tells of a humble working-class couple that save their money and drive to an expensive out-of-state restaurant each year for their anniversary. On this particular occasion they arrive to find it has become a members-only dinner club, and Luby transformed into an arrogant mobster who tries to frame them for a murder. At best this is a mild social class drama, but mostly it's a mash of The Fugitive and third-rate mysteries. Its contrived ending is testament that Vonnegut was thinking within genres rather than trusting his imagination.

Equally weak is "King and Queen of the Universe" in which a well-heeled and naïve couple get talked into a flawed good deed that turns into a caper. "Hello Red" is a darker version of "The Farkle Family," a future Laugh-In gag. I was also baffled by the choice to name the collection after a particularly contrived tale of a disbarred psychiatrist-turned-extortionist with a unique way of getting away with murder. And so it goes, as Vonnegut would say a decade later.

Any good news? One might find relevance in "Shout about It from the Rooftops" and its takedown of celebrity fame. It revolves around a window salesman, an angry man, and a wife whose tell-all confessional isn't what it seems, though that doesn't prevent it from becoming a mass market hit that brings nothing but misery. "Little Drop of Water" holds interest in our post-Harvey Weinstein times given that its protagonist is a serial womanizer. But I'll warn you to keep an airsickness bag at the ready for the resolution, which is really, really dated.

If given the pick of the litter it would be the opening "Confido" in which humble Henry Bowers invents a machine that tells us what we want to hear and makes us feel good—until it doesn't. Confido learns and begins to call things as they are. Let's just say that honesty isn't always the best or most comforting policy. We might want to read this one as a prescient warning of dangers inherent in artificial intelligence. Maybe.

Mostly this is dated stuff penned by the man who became Kurt Vonnegut. I want to believe that once Vonnegut entered his salad days he squirrled these ideas away for a reason. Perhaps had he lived a few years longer, he might have salvaged pieces of them from his writer's junkyard. I'm fairly certain those reworked parts would be more sublime than these wholes.

Rob Weir


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