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'Kurt Vonnegut: Letters' review: Lit and laughs

Kurt Vonnegut smiled for his wife, photographer Jill

Kurt Vonnegut smiled for his wife, photographer Jill Krementz, in 1973. Credit: AP Photo

KURT VONNEGUT: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield. Delacorte Press, 436 pp., $35.

True story: I once made Kurt Vonnegut laugh by telling him a joke. It wasn't an original or especially noteworthy joke. It was a riddle prompted by what, in 2001, was one of the Mets' more-error-ridden-than-usual losing streaks.

"What," I asked him (and, to repeat, this was some time ago), "do Michael Jackson and this year's Mets have in common?" Beat, beat, then the answer: "They all wear one glove for no explicable reason."

See what I mean? Still, Vonnegut laughed. And a genuine laugh from Vonnegut was no mere staccato burst. It was a cacophony of whistles, wheezes and chortles. It was as if I'd been given a grand gift by this melancholy connoisseur of slapstick, this wary collector of shaggy-dog stories. Though I met him only a couple times, I remember his laugh -- as do many others -- as a disarming display of interactive generosity, an outward and visible sign of an inward and accommodating grace.

Too bad you won't actually hear that laugh bursting through "Kurt Vonnegut: Letters." But you will find yourself laughing at much of its content. You also will find abundant evidence of its author's grace and generosity toward others; in particular, victims of disease, financial hardship, neglect and censorship.

And you will find prowling the edges of these congenial, whimsical and often insightful missives much of the sadness and tribulation that seeped into Vonnegut's life, whether as traumatized World War II veteran, struggling freelancer, stressed-out family guy, earnest writing instructor or international literary idol. "Anyone who imagines a writer's life has ever been easy -- even one who eventually achieves fame and fortune -- will be disabused of that fantasy after reading these letters," writes the book's editor, Dan Wakefield. "And they will be inspired."

Those last four words may mildly surprise readers who insist on seeing Vonnegut solely as the sullen grouch whose despair over humanity's survival can be traced through such black-comedic novels as "Cat's Cradle," "Mother Night," "The Sirens of Titan," "Galapagos," "Hocus Pocus" and his masterwork about the Allied firebombing of Dresden, "Slaughterhouse-Five." The bedrock for his body of work can be found in the letter he wrote to his family in May 1945, recounting in plain yet vivid detail the horrors he experienced before, during and after the firebombing three months earlier. One detail of his experiences as a POW is as chilling as a bad-news telegram: "They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time: -- One [American] boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food."

Who could blame anyone for being a lifelong pessimist ever after? Yet for Vonnegut, as it has been for generations of artists, writing offered the best of all possible releases from dread, however much he may have despaired through the 1950s and early 1960s that he could feed and raise a growing family solely on the slick-magazine market. At one point, he sells Saabs on Cape Cod; at another, he's hoping to sell somebody an idea for a children's board game. All the while, he tries, as he puts it in a letter to his agent, "to bring my mediocrity before the public." At the depths of his wilderness years, he's so discouraged that even this habitual quipster complains, "When you get right down to it, wit isn't any help anywhere."

Still he persevered. And found enough satisfaction from the writing trade to pass along what he learned to students at the University of Iowa's fabled writers' workshop. In one class assignment, he urges his students to "adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be." No misanthropes worth their bile could write that with a straight face.

He spread comfort out to many precincts: to his children and first wife, in deeply touching letters, accounting for his complicity in the breakup of his marriage; to librarians, teachers and translators in America and abroad facing censure or worse from censors, school boards and other official spoilsports; to other writers trapped in their own wildernesses.

However gloomy Kurt Vonnegut could be, he left behind this book, one of his very best, that you could use to keep your own hopes kindled and your insides warm.

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