A bookended set of early and late works by the late, great and surely lamented dystopian Vonnegut (A Man Without a Country, 2005, etc.).
When Vonnegut died in 2007, he left behind piles and boxes of manuscripts. Among them, as his daughter Nanette writes in her foreword, was a piece, “Basic Training,” from the late 1940s or perhaps 1950—not so long, in other words, after Vonnegut’s military service and all the terrible moments he would bring from it into his work. The piece, much longer than the usual short story of the time but perhaps a little short of a novella, too, is a conte à clef about Vonnegut’s time as a teenager on a country farm haunted by the stern presence of a senior officer who’d seen service in the trenches in World War I and wasn’t about to put up with any of the young protagonist’s guff. That guff, of course, involves getting well acquainted with the General’s daughter, a local beauty; says one of the protagonist’s conversants, “The General says she’s a lot smarter than some of the livestock in the neighborhood, too.” The tale quickly devolves into a great big shaggy-dog story full of Vonnegut’s soon-to-be-customary anarchic, cynical good humor; everyone goofs up, but just about everyone, including the General, retains humanity by virtue of simply being flawed. There’s none more flawed than the protagonist, though, whom the General greets as less than a fellow-well-met: “[A]nd what sunshine are you going to bring into our lives today? Shall we poison the well or burn the house down?” The second piece, unfinished at the time of Vonnegut’s death, is, well, of a piece, its language much saltier and its air much more world-weary; but if at times it seems as if Vonnegut is dipping into a well-used bag of tricks, at others it seems just as much that he’s putting a fresh coat of paint on classics such as Cat’s Cradle (1963), as with this nice little outburst: “You think people farts are bad? The polar ice caps are melting, I shit you not.”
A book that Vonnegut’s casual fans and students of his work alike will want to have.