The public image of Kurt Vonnegut is that of a crusty, irascible old man. Someone with whom one would want to drink, but never...

The public image of Kurt Vonnegut is that of a crusty, irascible old man. Someone with whom one would want to drink, but never ever fall in love. The Vonnegut we meet in Charles J. Shields’s insightful new biography, And So It Goes. Kurt Vonnegut: A Life (Henry Holt, 2011), is much the same. However, in Shields’s capable hands, Vonnegut’s crustiness is cast in a new light, and his black humor is leavened by the humanist sensibilities it cloaked. With the icon stripped away, we’re left to confront a real human being, and a life that was provocative in ways one might not imagine.

There are nearly 1,900 citations in And So It Goes, a fact that belies the book’s incredible readability. As a rave review in The New York Times noted, this is not a stodgy affair, but “an incisive, gossipy page-turner of a biography.” Shields eloquently tracks the soap operatic elements in the iconoclastic writer’s life, while also offering acute analysis on his private self and celebrity persona.

And So It Goes is full of memorable snapshots, but my favorite is this: “At home, [Kurt] secretly pored over an unabridged dictionary from his parents’ large library because he ‘suspected that there were dirty words hidden in there’ and puzzled over illustrations of the ‘trammel wheel, the arbalest, and the dugong.'” You can just see him–the man who bucked twentieth-century literary tradition–a curly-haired kid, canvassing the dictionary for words that were forbidden.

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