Look at the Birdie, the first full posthumous short-story collection by Kurt Vonnegut, is the most interesting sort of Terrible; confusing, actually, if you don’t read it in the right context, because it’s almost impossible to see a resemblance between the money-hungry bore who wrote these stories and the wise, funny, war-wearied humanist who wrote Mother Night or Slaughterhouse-Five.
Look at the Birdie isn’t Vonnegut’s first posthumous collection; it’s preceded by Armageddon in Retrospect, a collage of non-fiction writing (letters, speeches, essays) with a few short stories thrown in. There, the stories are accompanied by such perks as a glossy re-printing of Vonnegut’s first letter home after being released from a German POW camp in World War II, thus giving an air of history to the book from the start, and we could read the mediocre short stories – in between essays – and think, “OK, well, this was his first stab at fiction as a young man back from the war, it’s interesting to note how much he developed as a writer.”
In Look at the Birdie, however, it’s just bad short story after bad short story; formulaic setups wherein a problem is established and then resolved in the end to the benefit of nobody but for the cardboard characters, each as vibrant and endearing as a toenail clipping, and we get no speeches or essays to remind us, in between, that at least the author was interesting if his stories weren’t.
The goal of these stories is nothing more than the resolution of their problems, and they make no statements that weren’t made in childhood readings: love and nobility conquers all, justice is slow and circuitous but always finds its way – things of the like. Statements that are not only hokey and cliché but decidedly untrue, idiotic notions that Vonnegut himself rallied against for most of his life.
So why was he promulgating all of this, stuff that he clearly didn’t believe? As Charles J. Shields points out in his biography of Vonnegut, And So It Goes, Vonnegut was broke, had many mouths to feed, and wanted desperately to be published. So he studied the fiction published in major magazines like Colliers, took note of the quickly-discernable formula, and began to write his own stories that adhered to it. Those stories, he must have known, were not very good. Why else would he have never allowed them to be collected for a book? He had over 200 of them lying around, he could have printed fifteen books of them, made millions of dollars.
So if there’s anything worthwhile in Look at the Birdie, it’s noting Vonnegut’s dexterity as a writer, and to look at these stories, collectively, as a necessary evil. After Vonnegut’s sister and brother-in-law died within a day of each other (she of breast cancer, he in a train wreck), Vonnegut took in and raised – without legally adopting – their four children, adding to his own three. And so in a house of seven children, Vonnegut was the sole breadwinner while still catering to a budding career as a writer. Without the income provided by these stories, Vonnegut would not have been able to support his giant family through the writing of his earliest, greatest works.
Save for a few stories that do actually succeed in catching the reader’s attention in spite of their cardboard characters, on their respective ends of good-evil continuum (in “Confido” an insidious device meant to eliminate loneliness feeds, instead, the listener’s sense of indignation with everybody around them; in “Ed Luby’s Key Club,” a morally upstanding and hard-working Samaritan is framed for murder and then escapes from jail), everything in Look at the Birdie is really a waste of time. Even the stories that might keep your interest are predictable. Imagine the generic and anything-but-provocative formulas of mainstream 1950s entertainment and you’ll have a good idea of what’s in here.
I bought my copy from Books & Books on Aragon Ave. in Coral Gables.