'While Mortals Sleep': Vonnegut story time
In 1950, Kurt Vonnegut sold his first short story, "Report on the Barhouse Effect," for $750 - the equivalent of six weeks' pay at his public relations job at General Electric. When his second story sold for $950, he quit so he could write full time.
In the second collection of Vonnegut stories put out since his death in 2007, "While Mortals Sleep," we are given 16 previously unreleased short stories from this early period, when he was making his living by publishing short fiction in magazines like Esquire and Cosmopolitan.
As with "Look at the Birdie," the previous posthumous collection, this is Vonnegut fresh out of the corporate world, hungry to establish himself as a writer.
Today's readers play the part of an archaeologist, sifting through the pages and unearthing relics of a postwar United States that reveled in the short story. Sure, these stories feel like classic, wry and imaginative Vonnegut, but the atmosphere of a bygone era, when story took precedent over character, is what dominates.
Characters walk down the story's path, destined to its ending regardless of their action. Every event is calculated, leading up to a revelation or pronouncement that doesn't hide behind metaphors or symbolism - something seen as banal or amateurish by today's standards.
But this device works, even in the story "Money Talks," where, in unsurprising Vonnegut fashion, the titular money does, indeed, talk.
Perhaps it's easy to look at a half-century-old story and just be charmed by its apparent hokeyness. A certain nostalgia might take place.
But reading these Vonnegut pieces is deeper, because he provides enough substance to reassure us that we are not in the hands of a hack. Even with a direct moral that is routinely spelled out, we never feel ensnared in Vonnegut's self-indulgences or get the sense we are in the midst of a preachy anecdote or object lesson.
Pieces such as "Jenny," in which a man uses his toes to control a robotic refrigerator shaped like a woman, read like the typical Vonnegut canon.
But in other stories - "Out, Brief Candle" and "Ruth," for example - we see a more traditional and melancholy Vonnegut, similar to that of a short story by Alice Munro or J.D. Salinger, respectively.
Beyond the nice mixture of stories, 13 drawings by Vonnegut, who had a home in Sagaponack, are placed throughout the book.
Don't be discouraged by the fluff. These stories celebrate the form in its golden age. By the book's end, you'll want to dig up old copies of Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post to revisit the stories of not just Vonnegut, but of Steinbeck, Bradbury and Fitzgerald.
"While Mortals Sleep" is ultimately an artifact to celebrate and remind us that, with literature at least, we can do ourselves a favor by not staying current.
WHILE MORTALS SLEEP, by Kurt Vonnegut. Delacorte Press, 257 pp., $27.