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First Line (of the Introduction): Writing this book has been like conversing with an empty chair.
I don’t typically read biographies, but I have always been a tremendous fan of Kurt Vonnegut. So when Charles J. Shields’ biography And So It Goes – Kurt Vonnegut: A Life hit the Library Thing Early Reviewers list, I eagerly requested a copy. It may have even been the only book I requested that particular month. I was very happy when the email came in letting me know my ARC (Advanced Reader’s Copy) was in the mail.
Having not read many biographies, I think my biggest concern was that it would be a dry, chronological accounting of the events of Vonnegut’s life. I knew the basics about him going in – Dresden, his addictions to alcohol and cigarettes, his failed marriages, his connection to Rochester, NY – and hoped the book would take me deeper. While there is, I think, a missing through-line that holds everything together, Shields manages to turn KVs life story into a kind of dramatic narrative and is successful, often chillingly so, in giving me that deeper recognition of one of my favorite authors.
What impresses me most about the work is the exhaustive research Shields undertook to pull it off. He combed through letters from seemingly everyone and anyone with whom Vonnegut was ever in contact, linking them in a narrative that, with only a few exceptions, doesn’t judge nor assume. The most obvious exception, I think, is his portrayal of Vonnegut’s second wife Jill, who is, in the end, treated rather harshly while Shields seems to protect KV. This struck me particularly at odds with the rest of the work, as Shields was quite adept at showing other less-than-flattering sides of KV I had not known.
And So It Goes is a tremendous book, one I had difficulty putting down at times. I found myself taking notes and trying to make connections that Shields only touched upon, and I think the massive tome (494 pages including the references and acknowledgements – but it feels as if it’s somewhere around 700 pages) deserves at least two more reads if I hope to come close to even a partial understanding of Vonnegut’s influences, inspirations, and muses. Shields, I think, does a wonderful job at connecting the dots between the private and public lives of KV in such a way that I wound up examining things about my own life and relationships that seem similar (at least in spirit) to those of KV. That may be, of course, my own ego talking, but I think that any book, regardless of genre, that succeeds in making the reader think for themselves is, on some level at least, a success.
For fans of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., I thoroughly recommend And So It Goes. Non-fans, you might end up being a bit ambivalent about the book, but I don’t think so. This is, after all, the story of a man – complete and unvarnished (for the most part) with that man’s angels and demons. It touches on almost everything KV wrote at some point (and I think there’s a lot to be learned here about the toll a “creative process” can have on an artist), but it also covers the finer details of childhood summers and teaching experiences, and how those little moments contributed (or might have contributed) to KV’s creative whole.