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Reviewed by:
  • Kurt Vonnegut's America
  • Robert Morace
Klinkowitz, Jerome . Kurt Vonnegut's America. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009. x + 142 pp. $34.95. Cloth.

Although written by a leading critic and published by a university press, Kurt Vonnegut's America is not really an academic book. It is, however, the one book that anyone coming to Vonnegut for the first time or wanting to reacquaint her- or himself with Vonnegut should read to learn about the work and the man. A cross between a short study and a long obituary, Kurt Vonnegut's America is written in the conversational style that Jerome Klinkowitz used in interviews for The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, [End Page 120] To the Point, and other news shows following Vonnegut's death in 2007 and is intended to be summary rather than seminal in the way that Klinkowitz's groundbreaking 1975 book, Literary Disruptions, devoted to Vonnegut and other "post-contemporary" American fiction writers was. Made up almost entirely of decade-by-decade, book-by-book discussions of Vonnegut and his work, this compact but comprehensive volume offers a Cook's tour with an immensely knowledgeable guide who tells us what Vonnegut did; how and why he did it; and to what effect on author, reader, and nation alike. If the judgments made and the lessons drawn seem at times a little too pat, the reason is not intellectual laziness but Klinkowitz's way of paying homage to Vonnegut by borrowing some of his techniques and taking some of the same risks, including being willing to sound less sophisticated than he is. Although the overall structure is linear, much of Kurt Vonnegut's America is as collage-like as Vonnegut's own work, combining criticism, homage, obituary, and personal reminiscence into a brief but compelling portrait of a distinctly American artist. In it, we see, for example, how the humor Vonnegut used as the youngest child to get his family's attention became a major element of his literary style as he grappled with larger personal, national, and global issues. Klinkowitz also discusses how the Depression that changed his family's fortunes and destroyed his mother's mind also resulted in Vonnegut's attending public schools where the friendships he formed with working-class children helped form the egalitarian viewpoint that characterizes his fiction and his vision of America and its failings.

Dresden and Slaughterhouse-Five have so dominated our thinking about Vonnegut that we often forget how the later work derives, rather than departs, from the '50s fiction that "spoke the language, fed the interests, and answered the concerns of people like himself" (19). As Klinkowitz explains, "As Americans adjusted to the new postwar realities—new politics, new economics, new demographics, even new art and music...short stories and novels, especially in a commonly accessible form, helped people get settled: hence Vonnegut's work in Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post, and in a book-club selection such as Player Piano and a paperback original (rack size for drugstores and bus stations) such as The Sirens of Titan" (33). Within that context and that of his "core values" (which Klinkowitz shares), Vonnegut adapted to the changing times and to his changing role as an American writer. When Collier's accepted his early stories, Vonnegut resigned from General Electric to become a full-time author, but when the advertising revenues that supported magazines such as Collier's shifted to television and outlets for stories such as "Report on the Barnhouse Effect" dried up, Vonnegut explored "new markets with new literary forms" (52), turning out thirty-four pieces of nonfiction between 1964 and 1970 to keep the pot boiling for his growing family. Vonnegut not only adopted some of the techniques of the New Journalism then coming into vogue, he also quickly adapted them to his fiction-writing, as is evident in Slaughterhouse-Five, which, according to Klinkowitz, "established its author as a celebrity spokesperson for key issues of the day" (62) and as a result created opportunities as well as problems for Vonnegut. As a "celebrity spokesperson" Vonnegut took his civic responsibility seriously, even as his first marriage was falling apart...


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