Vonnegut started publishing in the early 1950s and, in 1969, came out with "Slaughterhouse-Five," recently reissued by Dial Press -- along with "Sirens of Titan," "Mother Night" and "Galapagos," all $15 -- a miracle book that both distilled everything its writer knew and caught the wave of America's damaged, deranged Vietnam-era mood. The worldwide splash made by "Slaughterhouse-Five" turned Vonnegut into a wealthy celebrity, and thereafter it came to seem that everything he'd written before had been a kind of preparation, while what he wrote after merely drifted in that book's wake. That judgment is true in a way and yet totally unfair -- a very Vonnegutian formulation -- although "Slaughterhouse-Five" does remain central.
On Feb. 13, 1945, a firestorm created by Allied bombers destroyed the city of Dresden, a beautiful (but German) city of no military value. Estimates of how many people died vary between 40,000 and 135,000, depending on what color of historian you read. Either way, the raid snuffed out plenty. And Vonnegut -- then a young infantry scout who'd been captured during the Battle of the Bulge -- was being kept prisoner in Dresden that night, locked deep underground in a slaughterhouse among the cooled cadavers of pigs and cows. He emerged to see the aftermath of the snuffing and, with his fellow prisoners, was handed the job of bringing out the dead.
"They were loaded on wagons and taken to parks, large open areas in the city that weren't filled with rubble. The Germans got funeral pyres going, burning the bodies to keep them from stinking and from spreading disease. One hundred and thirty thousand corpses were hidden underground. It was a terribly elaborate Easter egg hunt," he told the Paris Review.
Vonnegut had witnessed the unimaginable, or, as he characteristically put it, "I saw something very fancy." For years, through the late 1950s and early 1960s, he told his friends and students (Vonnegut taught for a few crucial years at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, mentoring John Irving, among others) that he was working on his "Dresden book."
Shades of World War II linger behind the antics of the superb "Cat's Cradle" (1963) with its "Church of God the Utterly Indifferent." In the yet earlier, "Mother Night" (1961), Vonnegut attempted the apparently impossible, to write a funny book about Nazism, and he described "artifacts characteristic of fire storms: seeming pieces of charred firewood two or three feet long -- ridiculously small human beings, or jumbo fried grasshoppers, if you will."
The image makes us laugh while succeeding in its ambition to be both shocking and sad. Yet Vonnegut's ambition and gift only sparked together to produce "Slaughterhouse-Five" when he released himself and realized at last that the "Dresden book" didn't have to be categorically different from what he'd already been doing. The novel's first chapter is pretty much autobiographical, assuring us that all this happened, "more or less." But as the English critic John Sutherland has noted, between "more" and "less" is where fiction happens, and the narrative that follows combines history, science fiction, satire, subtle moralizing and goofy Vonnegut mantras such as "Po-too-weet" and the famous "So it goes."
"Slaughterhouse-Five" doesn't blend these elements but switches between them with a speed that almost but not quite defies the reader's brain as it tries to follow. The plot device that enables this magician's shell game is time-travel. The book's hero, Billy Pilgrim, is either crazy or spastic in time, with no control over where he's going next. One moment he's in Ilium, N.Y., running his successful optometry business. The next he's on the distant planet of Tralfamadore, snatched by aliens and kept in a zoo where he mates with the beautiful earthling movie star Montana Wildhack. Then he's lost with his army comrades in the frozen forests of the Ardennes, wishing he could die, that he could just turn to steam and float up among the treetops: "Somewhere the big dog barked again. With the help of fear and echoes and winter silences, that dog had a voice like a big bronze gong."
Among many other things, "Slaughterhouse-Five" is a book about the difficulties of trying to write "Slaughterhouse-Five." Vonnegut, being Vonnegut, was determined to make the result as easy as eating ice cream. He was always on the reader's side, a stance that, as his career went along through many books, some excellent ("Breakfast of Champions," "Galapagos"), others fractured and not-so-good ("Deadeye Dick," "Timequake"), made him easy meat for critics while being admired and adopted by the many practicing writers who have proclaimed his influence, among them Irving, Jonathan Safran-Foer and Haruki Murakami. Vonnegut's mixed-tone thumbprint is all over the work of the Coen Brothers, for example, and Martin Amis riffed an entire novel, "Time's Arrow," out of the famous page in which Billy Pilgrim imagines a bombing raid in reverse, making "everything and everybody as good as new."
Vonnegut not only resides in the pantheon -- he's helped create a whole other one. He was a much more literary writer than many care to give him credit for, and sadder too. He came from a family of suicides and himself danced around the idea of self-slaughter. In his work we laugh at all the capering while we sense the darkness that lies beyond it. For Vonnegut that "big dog" was always barking. Of Mark Twain, one of his literary heroes, he wrote: "He denounced the planet as a crock. He died." Vonnegut never lost his fondness for American dottiness, for the insurance and stock salesmen who staff his early stories, for the whack-job religions and alternate science systems that pop up in his later ones, for deluded and dangerous historians, for oddball inventors, for guys who try and fail to fix vacuum cleaners, and for tyrannical, or indeed benevolent, millionaires. His subjects were pain, human folly and indifferent providence, yet he nursed these themes with slapstick and a sense of sadness that could edge toward beauty.
Here's Billy Pilgrim, back on Earth, seeing a magazine cover that has a question -- What became of Montana Wildhack? -- on its cover: "So Billy read it. He knew where Montana Wildhack really was, of course. She was back on Tralfamadore, taking care of the baby, but the magazine, which was called Midnight Pussycats, promised that she was wearing a cement overcoat under thirty fathoms of saltwater in San Pedro Bay."
Vonnegut's invented magazine -- Midnight Pussycats (!) -- is hilarious, inspired, yet the underlying, off-kilter effect that the passage invites us to feel is both somber and tender. Is Billy really just insane and dreaming about his other life on a distant planet? Vonnegut never lets on. The clown was a poet.
Rayner is the author of many books, including "A Bright and Guilty Place." Paperback Writers appears at www.latimes.com/books.