An introductory-level summary of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, with a biographical twist.
It’s clear that Sumner (History/Univ. of Detroit Mercy) is a devoted and thoughtful reader of Vonnegut’s novels. However, it’s difficult to tell whether his book is intended to be a scholarly work or simply the gushing evangelism of a true fan. Readers who enjoyed Slaughterhouse-Five but are looking for a refresher on the plot, or those coming to Vonnegut for the first time, will find that the book meets their needs. Readers seeking a more analytical approach may be disappointed. Sumner describes Vonnegut’s novels in chronological order and dispenses corresponding details from the author’s personal history when relevant. Though light on analysis, the book is accessible. In his chapter on Night Mother, Sumner zeroes in on the novel’s insistence on the impossibility of true moral purity through its portrayal of a protagonist who embodies the role of both war criminal and war hero: “He opens us to the disturbing malleability of the human soul, insists that there is no place of purity and ‘clean hands’ to which we can safely and finally retreat.” In the chapter on Cat’s Cradle, Sumner examines Vonnegut’s exploration of the occasionally evil consequences of good intentions. The chronological organization often reveals the development of a particular theme in successive novels, but it precludes a more in-depth investigation of these themes.
For general readers, a useful refresher course on Vonnegut’s life and novels; scholars should look elsewhere.