Look at the birdie: unpublished short fiction - By Kurt Vonnegut


by Sidney Offit

As I read this anthology of Kurt Vonnegut’s previously unpublished short stories, I was reminded of the paradoxical aspects of his personality. Few writers in the history of literature have achieved such a fusion of the human comedy with the tragedies of human folly in their fiction—and, I suspect, fewer still have had the grace to so candidly acknowledge them in their presentation of self.

During the years of our friendship, though I was aware that he might be suffering private misery, Kurt scuttled his demons with élan as we played tennis and Ping-Pong, skipped off to afternoon movies and jaunts around town, feasted at steak houses and French restaurants, watched football games on television, and twice sat as guests in a box at Madison Square Garden to root for the Knicks.

With his signature gentle but mordant wit, Kurt participated in family celebrations, meetings of writers’ organizations, and our gab and laugh sessions with Morley Safer and Don Farber, George Plimpton and Dan Wakefield, Walter Miller and Truman Capote, Kevin Buckley and Betty Friedan. I don’t think it an exaggeration to suggest that I, as well as Kurt’s other friends, felt that time with Kurt was a momentous gift no matter how light our conversation. We often found ourselves imitating his amused reserve about his own foibles and those of the world.

Along with the fun and warm support he so graciously expressed to his friends, Kurt Vonnegut treated me to intimate glimpses of the master storyteller whose ironic and frequently startling observations of people emphasized the moral complexities of life. Walking uptown after a memorial service for an unmarried female author who had devoted her life to literary criticism, Kurt said to me, “No children. No books. Few friends.” His voice expressed empathic pain. Then he added, “She seemed to know what she was doing.”

At Kurt’s eightieth birthday party, John Leonard, a former editor of The New York Times Book Review, reflected on the experience of knowing and reading Kurt: “Vonnegut, like Abe Lincoln and Mark Twain, is always being funny when he’s not being depressed,” Leonard observed. “His is a weird jujitsu that throws us for a loop.”

The Vonnegut acrobatics are off to a fast start in this circus of good and evil, fantasy and reality, tears and laughter. The first story, “Confido,” is about a magical device that provides instant conversation, advice, and therapy to the lonely. But—and here comes the flip side—Confido, the ingenious mind reader, eagerly reveals to its listeners their worse dissatisfactions, leading to painful discomfort with life. This story suggests not only the risks of psychiatry, where the patient may learn too much about himself/herself, but also the drastic spiritual consequences of biting the knowledge-bearing apple.

Although I recall Kurt as being appreciative of his brief adventure with psychotherapy, misgivings about the practice of psychiatry are a recurring theme in this collection. “Look at the Birdie” begins with the narrator sitting at a bar, talking about a person he hates. “Let me help you to think about it clearly,” the man in a black mohair suit with a black string tie says to him. “What you need are the calm, wise services of a murder counselor…”

This bizarre tale is resolved with a version of the old-fashioned O. Henry surprise ending that requires the reader’s suspension of disbelief. But who can resist the enchantments of a storyteller who has a mad character tell us that a paranoiac is “a person who has gone crazy in the most intelligent, well-informed way, the world being what it is”? That’s not just jujitsu. It’s martial art.

Other gems of Kurt’s wit and verbal play, his dour but just about always humorous commentaries, punctuate these tales. “FUBAR,” a story title as well as theme, is defined for the reader by the bemused and sometimes mocking narrator as “fouled up beyond all recognition.” Then we are asked to consider that “it is a particularly useful and interesting word in that it describes a misfortune brought about not by malice but by administrative accidents in some large and complex organization.”

With one brief sentence, the weather in Indianapolis, Kurt’s hometown, which is the scene for the story “Hall of Mirrors,” is vividly described. Although the first words of the sentence lead us to expect a lovely nature ramble, the balance surprisingly allows the reader to see, feel, and hear the ugly chill. “Autumn winds, experimenting with the idea of a hard winter, made little twists of soot and paper, made the plastic propellers over