The problem with collecting any “great” author’s unpublished works after his death is two-fold. First, for some of the pieces inevitably collected, the reasons those pieces were unpublished will be obvious. Second, other pieces will seem – however good – like preliminary sketches for the author’s better and better-known works. With these two points in mind, the reader takes up Kurt Vonnegut’s Armageddon in Retrospect (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008), a gift from a relative the reader recommended Vonnegut to decades ago.
The volume includes largely undated pieces, with two clear exceptions, a letter written shortly after Vonnegut’s stint as a prisoner of war in 1945 and a speech written shortly before his death in 2007. A number of the included pieces, however, reflect the writer’s Major Life Event, his survival of the horrific destruction of Dresden by Allied bombers while he was a POW there. This event, of course, was made into Vonnegut’s best-known novel, Slaughterhouse Five.
The best of these pieces is a beautifully formed and clever short story called “Guns before Butter,” which is ostensibly about prisoner-workers in Dresden who are so obsessed with food that the reader actually becomes annoyed with them. Through the “transformation” of their German guard, though, it turns out to be a comically perfect comment on military rank.
Next to his vehement pacifism, Vonnegut is best known for his ability to provide surprising and often comic insights, an ability the author had until the very end of his life. The speech at Clowes Hall in Indianapolis alluded to above (and actually delivered by the writer’s son after his death) is the evidence. Disjointed almost to the point of stand-up comedy, it includes the best “lines” in the volume:
“The most spiritually splendid American phenomenon of my lifetime is how African-American citizens have maintained their dignity and self-respect, despite their having been treated by white Americans…simply because of their skin color, as though they were contemptible and loathsome, and even diseased.”
And a couple of pages later: “You want to know what the great French writer Jean-Paul Sartre said one time? He said, in French of course, ‘Hell is other people.’ He refused to accept a Nobel Prize. I could never be that rude. I was raised right by our African-American cook, whose name was Ida Young.”
And finally, to choose a passage more or less at random: “…there’s good news and bad news tonight. This is the best of times and the worst of times. So what else is new?
“The bad news is that the Martians have landed in Manhattan, and have checked into the Waldorf-Astoria. The good news is that they only eat homeless people of all colors and pee gasoline.”
The volume isn’t perfect. (So what else is new?) Despite a somewhat predictable resolution, however, many readers will likely approve of the story called “The Unicorn Trap,” a fable placed in 1067, shortly after William the Conqueror’s arrival in England. That Vonnegut’s 11th century serfs also use the 20th century language of rural American high school drop-outs actually isn’t that bothersome. “Brighten Up,” while interesting, is a flawed memory piece about a minor-league relative of Joseph Heller’s Milo Minderbinder from Catch-22. Its conclusion just isn’t that compelling, but then, despite clever arguments to the contrary, life is life, and art is something else. Armageddon in Retrospect provides both life (and death) reflected and art made with deceptively simple honesty.
The volume’s title story, presented in the form of a letter to a reader “far above average in intellect and concern for [his] fellow man,” is a fine example.