A sterling collection of the late Vonnegut’s corpus of short fiction, with several unpublished pieces to balance better-known published and anthologized work.
As volume editors Klinkowitz and Wakefield note, the 98 stories gathered here come mostly from magazine work of the 1940s and '50s, some later collected in books such as Welcome to the Monkey House, as well as unpublished pieces posthumously gathered by Vonnegut’s executor and a few retrieved from Vonnegut’s papers at Indiana University. The editors nicely complicate the collection by breaking it into eight thematic groups—war, science, and so forth. Vonnegut being Vonnegut, the stories do not always neatly fit into these categories: the deftly ironic “Just You and Me, Sammy” has elements of war story, spy story, and murder mystery all rolled up into one. Given Vonnegut’s experiences in World War II, many of the stories are death-haunted; in one plainspoken tale, meaningfully called “Out, Brief Candle,” he writes of a woman who “felt old because her husband, Ed, who really was old, had died and left her alone on the hog farm in northern Indiana,” the Hoosier State being a favorite setting. Some of the stories seem written to dutiful formula, but even when he is writing more or less conventionally, Vonnegut sneaks in some pet themes—time travel, say, with one wonderfully strange yarn featuring a character who says, “I want you to kill me and bring me back to life,” a request that, naturally enough, has odd consequences. His trademark existential despair is here in spades, and even if nothing quite dazzles in the way of Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five, nothing clinks, either. There’s plenty of humor worthy of O. Henry, too, as when he writes of a high school band class, “C Band set out in its quest for beauty—set out like a rusty switch engine, with valves stuck, pipes clogged, unions leaking, bearings dry.”
Essential for Vonnegut completists, of course—and budding writers can always learn a thing or two from the sardonic master.