About the Book by Dan Wakefield Titled “Kurt Vonnegut: The Making of a Writer”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Meghan Cox Gurdon of the book by Dan Wakefield titled “Kurt Vonnegut: The Making of a Writer”:

You are leafing through The Wall Street Journal and you notice the name Kurt Vonnegut in a book review. You remember liking something of his. Maybe it was a novel: “Breakfast of Champions” or “Cat’s Cradle.” Maybe it was one of his short stories: “Harrison Bergeron” or “Report on the Barnhouse Effect.” The connection is enough to make you start reading. You learn that Vonnegut’s friend Dan Wakefield has written a book called “Kurt Vonnegut: The Making of a Writer.”

You see that the biography is pitched at teenage readers, and you’re not a teenager. But you keep reading long enough to grasp that it’s not only young adults who will get a kick out of the book. You will, too—especially if you’re interested in novels and novelists; especially if you come from Indianapolis or lived through the 1960s or miss the way people used to write letters to each other. You get the idea that Mr. Wakefield’s account of Vonnegut’s life is funny and tender, the kind of book that will leave you bruised and happy and reverberating a little….

The style Mr. Wakefield uses has the effect of turning Vonnegut (1922-2007) into your intimate friend. At one point, he points out something about Vonnegut that could be said of himself: “Your writing is friendly and clear and conveys new ideas, new ways of looking at things that seem natural, unassuming, as if a friend is talking to you.” That’s how it is.

“The house is big, and you are the smallest person in it,” Mr. Wakefield tells you early in the story, but he’s not talking to you, the reader; he’s ostensibly talking to Vonnegut the writer, while, of course, actually talking to you. (See how this creates a sense of affection?) You read that Vonnegut spent more time with his family’s African-American cook and housekeeper, Ida Young, than with his own mother. You find out that Ida has to go when the Great Depression wipes out the Vonnegut fortune and that Vonnegut’s mother, who was raised in aristocratic affluence, never reconciles herself to the loss of money and status. One day she will take an overdose of sleeping pills, an act of despair that scars her youngest son.

You notice that Mr. Wakefield tells you the hard things about Vonnegut’s life without dwelling on them. He isn’t trying to create an esoteric, lyrical “narrative” or to feast on anyone’s deficiencies, and he doesn’t speculate about the writer’s hidden influences. He tells you about the man’s experiences and lets you work things out for yourself. He also lets Vonnegut speak to you, unfiltered, through entries in a boyhood diary and through letters he sent to other people.

Mr. Wakefield is the perfect person to give you insights into Vonnegut by means of Vonnegut because he’s not only Vonnegut’s old pal, protégé and a fellow Hoosier; he’s also a novelist and screenwriter, a friend of Vonnegut’s son Mark (who’s also a writer), and the editor of a sprawling 2012 collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s letters.

When you read from Vonnegut’s juvenilia and his letters written in adulthood, there’s no barrier between your mind and his. You laugh out loud. You relish the tartness of his truth-telling and the wit of his self-deprecation. Writing ad copy, the teenage Vonnegut invites you to “drape your eyeballs” over a pair of shoes. In his high-school journal, he reports finding animal bones on a trip out west: “I intend to use those sheep vertebrae as a very rugged tie rack for my room.” In a letter in late middle age to a literary antagonist, Vonnegut thanks the critic Anatole Broyard for remarking “on how slowly my literary reputation is dying. Part of the problem, surely, is that all my books remain in print, and people continue to give me credit for having written them.”

As you read, you discover that Vonnegut experienced disappointments both in the world of letters and out of it: He opens the second-ever Saab dealership in the United States and has to close it within months; he bombs a writing test for Sports Illustrated; he gets turned down for a job teaching English at Cape Cod Community College. Even where Vonnegut succeeds—and, boy, does he succeed—you see that his victories don’t come easily. “Slaughterhouse-Five,” his 1969 antiwar novel about the fire-bombing of Dresden and the book that would secure his renown, is thrice rejected before it finds a publisher.

You feel close to Kurt Vonnegut through all these things, through family happiness and tribulation, through false starts, odd jobs and literary triumph. “Nothing is lost on you,” Mr. Wakefield writes of his friend’s voracious creativity. “You find a way to use in your fiction whatever you learn, in classes in anthropology, in working as a reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago, and from your days as a public relations man at GE.” Nothing is lost on you. It’s a fine aspiration, whether you’re a writer or not.

Meghan Cox Gurdon, a Journal contributor, is the author of “The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in an Age of Distraction.”

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