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Book review: 'While Mortals Sleep' by Kurt Vonnegut

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While Mortals Sleep

Unpublished Short Fiction

Kurt Vonnegut, foreword by Dave Eggers

Delacorte: 272 pp., $27

It was in the 1950s that Kurt Vonnegut, then in his early 30s, quit his job as a publicity man for the research department of General Electric and committed himself to a freelance career. He soon published a first novel, 'Player Piano' (unsuccessful), and began cranking out short stories, scores of them, for the 'slicks' — family magazines such as Collier's, Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan, markets that had helped support the careers of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Irwin Shaw, among others, and still, at that time, paid handsomely for fiction. Some of Vonnegut's stories were bought, published and later reprinted in book form, in "Canary in a Cat House" and "Welcome to the Monkey House." Many more were never published at all and are only now, after Vonnegut's death, seeing the light of day. A first posthumous collection, "Armageddon in Retrospect," appeared in 2008, and featured fiction and nonfiction relating to the theme war and peace. A second, "Look at the Birdie," comprising unpublished short stories from the 1950s, came out the next year. And now here's "While Mortals Sleep," a companion volume to "Look at the Birdie," with 16 previously unseen stories. So what do we have here, apart from the information that Vonnegut left behind great troves of unpublished material and, in one period of his life, devoted far more time and effort to the conventions of short fiction than he later liked to let on?

In "Jenny," a traveling salesman is madly in love with the research product he demonstrates, a refrigerator that can be made to talk and think like an idealized version of his wife. In "The Epizootic," the U.S. is swept by an epidemic of people killing themselves for their life insurance. The principal industry of the country has become "dying for a living," a very Vonnegutian idea. "'Hundred-Dollar Kisses," cast in the form of a legal deposition, describes how two corporate executives start brawling over girlie magazines and a prank phone call. In "Guardian of the Person," an MIT engineering student drives to Cape Cod with his new bride to take full control of his inheritance. "With His Hand on the Throttle" features Earl Harrison, a successful businessman, "an empire builder by nature, annoyed at being shorter than most men, massively muscled, self-made, insistently the center of any gathering," who ignores his pretty, young wife and instead devotes himself to the burgeoning model railway system he's got down in the basement, tracks he rules like Napoleon.

The stories set themselves up with neat swiftness, proceed at a clip, and shut down with equal speed. They're very skillfully done, "mousetrap stories," as Dave Eggers describes them in his foreword, tales to be taken at a single sitting, with a twist or moral pill that comes so quickly at the end the reader scarcely notices it slipping down. The settings are Indianapolis, where Vonnegut grew up; various locales in New York, including Schenectady; and Cape Cod, Mass., his base of freelance operations. The mise-en-scène, the background aura, falls somewhere between "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Mad Men," an effect as American as Ike and IBM — very much of the 1950s. The endings of some of the stories feel glib or rushed, and that's maybe why they were initially rejected or heaved by Vonnegut into his own reject pile. But vibrating through many of them is the ache, the undercurrent of loss and sadness, that we associate with this most impish yet rueful of American writers.

"The two women nodded formally across the apartment's threshold. They were lonely women, widows; one middle-aged and the other young. Their meeting now — ostensibly to defeat their loneliness — only emphasized how solitary the other was," Vonnegut writes at the beginning of "Ruth," in which a pregnant woman journeys to meet the mother of her recently deceased husband, only to be greeted by manipulative wheedling and an atmosphere of frostily vengeful disappointment: "The small guest room, tasteful, crisp, barren, like all guest rooms implied an invitation to make oneself at home, and at the same time admitted that it was an impossibility. The room was cool, as though the radiators had only been turned on an hour or so before, and the air was sweet with the smell of furniture polish."

The two women bicker and tussle about the future of the unborn child, and Ruth realizes that her mother-in-law, "an attitude of stubborn mass," "a rook of a woman," is terribly sick, insane. Loss is at the heart of the story, and a distant memory of World War II, whose looming shadow Vonnegut would finally be able to bring into the foreground many years later in the dazzling kaleidoscopic medley of shock, grief and wonder that is "Slaughterhouse-Five."

A story like "Ruth," however, is predictive of Vonnegut's great future. His particular vision of human life — it's vulnerable, it's precarious, it's pained, and fate is likely to slap us hard at any moment — is already falling into place, as is that wry tone, which mingles wit and resignation with an unashamed moral gaze. Vonnegut was interested in simple yet profound investigations of right and wrong, even when seeking to peddle middlebrow magazine hackery.

The "slicks" began to fold in the late 1950s and Vonnegut gave up writing so many short stories. Ever resourceful, he turned to paperback originals, and the burgeoning science fiction market. Really, though, he was always closer to Mark Twain and Frank Capra than Isaac Asimov. Critics tend to regard Vonnegut as an improvisatory writer, like a great jazz soloist, but these early works show how he had already assimilated the rules of craft he would later smash with such glee.

"While Mortals Sleep," the title story here, centers upon a newspaperman, a hardboiled city editor, grappling with the corny, commercialized realities of a Midwestern Christmas. This character's name is Fred Hackleman, a typical Vonnegut formulation — enough like life, but with an almost surreal tweak. "As nearly as I could tell, he and the Spirit of Christmas had as little in common as a farm cat and the Audubon Society," the narrator says of Hackleman. "And he was like a farm cat in a lot of ways. He was solitary, deceptively complacent and lazy, and quick with the sharp claws of his authority and wit."

That's great, and Vonnegut worked hard to make it look so easy. These taut, concise stories show us the roots of a great Rube Goldberg literary career.

Rayner writes the Paperback Writers column at http://www.latimes.com/books. His most recent book is "A Bright and Guilty Place."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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