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Vonnegut biographer's labor of love

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Posted: Sunday, December 4, 2011 6:00 am | Updated: 2:41 pm, Wed Jan 23, 2013.


With dilemma-type dreams haunting his nights, and the pain of losing a friend troubling his days, Charles J. Shields was losing sleep and weight.

The biographer’s distress started in early April 2007, when he spotted an eight-inch newspaper headline in an airport terminal. It read, “American Novelist Kurt Vonnegut Dead at Age 84.”

The handful of words laid waste to Shields’ literary blueprint for penning the first biography of the famous author. They also delivered a hard, emotional punch to his gut.

“Of course, I was saddened by the loss of a man I had come to think of as a friend,” said Shields, who lives with his wife in Barboursville. “I was caught in a state of unease, because I had lost my subject and we were working so well together.

“I felt I could go on, but it was about three months before I could put my heart back into the project. I was having unhappy dreams about seeing him in places and wanting to ask him something and he wouldn’t speak.”

By midsummer Shields had shaken his emotional malaise and was back at work. The results of his five-year literary effort has been realized in the just-released biography, “And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life.”

Many of Vonnegut’s countless fans saw him as a curly-haired, lovable curmudgeon with a brilliant literary voice that seemed to speak directly to them. Despite his fame, he also appeared to be as approachable as a favorite uncle.

Young adults in particular were drawn to Vonnegut and his books. Shields had been a college student in 1969 when he discovered the writer via “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

“One of the things I wanted to find out was what was it about the nature of Kurt’s questioning, and his skepticism and his asking the big questions about God, existence and things, that really seem to touch the hearts of young people,” Shields said.

“This came home to me when I was looking through his papers at Indiana University. I found letters from young men and women that were very moving.

“One young fellow said, ‘I’m 19 and I don’t cry very much. I’m about to go into the Air Force, but I’ve got to tell you, I wept when I finished ‘Cat’s Cradle.’ ’’

“There were other letters from young people saying, ‘Kurt, come have dinner with us. I’ll invite all my friends. We’ll have spaghetti.’ They felt he was a friend, and you don’t often see that with readers.

“The relationship was unusual. It’s something about the nature of his intimate voice.”

In many ways Vonnegut was that huggable, kind person with a genius for making some sense of a crazy world. But, as Shields reveals, he also was a man tortured by the flames of personal hells.

Imagine the mental scar that was axed into Vonnegut’s 21-year-old mind when he finds his mother dead, having committed suicide on Mother’s Day. Then there were the horrors he had been subjected to as a POW during World War II.

When Shields reached out to Vonnegut in 2006 with an offer to write his biography, he wasn’t aware of the demons the famous writer struggled with. He had heard Vonnegut was “miffed” that no one had done a study of his life, and he was looking for a new subject.

The Albemarle County writer had one very powerful credential. At the time he was enjoying tremendous success with his best-selling biography, “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.”

After a flourish of back-and-forth correspondence, Shields received a postcard with a sketched self-portrait of Vonnegut and the word “OK.” They first met face-to-face just before Christmas 2006.

“Kurt was not the person I expected to meet,” Shields said. “He struck me as a man who was in pain and who was haunted by the past.

“When you read his books you get his droll sense of humor and his joshing. You get his kind of avuncular attitude.

“Then, when I meet him, I find an 84-year-old man who is angry about his parents, and is unhappy about his first marriage that ended years before. He feels he is unappreciated by critics, that he has been ignored by the eggheads.

“So I met a man who should be enjoying the golden years of fame and success. Instead he comes off as a very aggrieved person who wanted to settle some scores, and wanted it known just how he had been treated.”

Local best-selling author and National Book Award winner John Casey was a close friend of Vonnegut. They had met in the mid-1960s, when Casey was a student of Vonnegut at the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

After reading the book, Casey said he was dismayed to learn about the hard time his friend was having during the last years of his life.

“I think it’s a valuable book,” Casey said. “Any Vonnegut fan is going to love it, and probably read it with a kind of sinking feeling of how this wonderful writer kept thinking he was a failure.

“I mean, both early on, when he wasn’t selling and was classified as this science fiction hack, and then even later, when he was so much more filled with self-doubt than I knew.

“So it’s sad to read it, but on the other hand, there were a lot of things I was glad to learn. There was a lot of sour in Kurt, a lot of bitterness, but he fought it and ended up being one of the kindest people I’ve even known.”

Vonnegut’s oeuvre consists of 16 books, all of which remain in print. His most acclaimed novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five,” was heavily influenced by his World War II experience as a POW who survived the horrific bombing of Dresden, Germany.

Vonnegut was serving as an infantryman when he was captured by German troops in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. He was taken to Dresden, where he and other American prisoners were housed in a large slaughterhouse.

“One night the German guards rouse them all out of their beds and take them 60 feet below ground into a cellar, where they waited out an intensive eight-hour pattern bombing attack by the RAF and the American Eighth Air Force,” Shields said.

“When they come up, Dresden is gone. Some 60,000 people are dead, and the city is in flames. For the next two months they are, in essence, body miners. They’re pulling bodies out of basements where people have burned or suffocated to death.

“The book ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ touches on something, or really the underpinning of something, we only recognize later. It’s a book about post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The main character, Billy Pilgrim, ricochets around in time and ends up in all different places. And it’s because he’s having flashbacks, and because he’s got a lot of unresolved feelings about what happened.”

Gathering information and then writing about Vonnegut’s war experience was unsettling for the biographer.

“The toughest chapter to write, the one that really ground me down, was the chapter on Dresden,” Shields said. “When I started interviewing men who had been there, and when I read descriptions about what happened during the bombing and afterward, it was very, very hard to write about.

“I wanted to impact the reader and make them feel like they were there. On the other hand, I dreaded the gloom and the odor of death everywhere.”

Casey was profuse with praise for the book, which went through three drafts and includes 1,900 footnotes. In one particularly remarkable effort, Shields managed to collect some 1,500 letters Vonnegut had penned to friends starting in 1945 and ending just three weeks before the fall that ultimately caused his death.

“God, did he do his homework,” Casey said of Shields. “It’s a deservedly monumental work.

“I’d just like to add a word. Kurt did practice what he preached.”

The last time Shields spoke with Vonnegut was at the end of an interview in the writer’s New York City home. It was a few hours before Vonnegut would trip over his dog’s leash, fall, strike his head and never regain consciousness.

“We had a good interview, although I could tell he was very tired,” Shields said. “I said I’d come back the next day and he said, ‘Great.’

“We talked for a little bit and apropos of nothing, really, I said to him, ‘Hey, I want to ask you — do you believe in God?’

He said, ‘I don’t know, but who couldn’t?’ ”

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