‘Kurt Vonnegut: Letters’ is full of laughs

Collection of writings is author’s life story in his words

Gene Seymour / Newsday /

“Kurt Vonnegut: Letters” Edited by Dan Wakefield (Delacorte Press, $35)

True story: I once made Kurt Vonnegut laugh by telling him a joke. It wasn’t an original or especially noteworthy joke. It was a riddle prompted by what, in 2001, was one of the New York Mets’ more-error-ridden-than-usual losing streaks.

“What,” I asked him (and, to repeat, this was some time ago), “do Michael Jackson and this year’s Mets have in common?” Beat, beat, then the answer: “They all wear one glove for no explicable reason.”

See what I mean? Still, Vonnegut laughed. And a genuine laugh from Vonnegut was no mere staccato burst. It was a cacophony of whistles, wheezes and chortles. It was as if I’d been given a grand gift by this melancholy connoisseur of slapstick, this wary collector of shaggy-dog stories. Though I met him only a couple times, I remember his laugh — as do many others — as a disarming display of interactive generosity, an outward and visible sign of an inward and accommodating grace.

Too bad you won’t actually hear that laugh bursting through “Kurt Vonnegut: Letters.” But you will find yourself laughing at much of its content. You also will find abundant evidence of its author’s grace and generosity toward others; in particular, victims of disease, financial hardship, neglect and censorship.

And you will find prowling the edges of these congenial, whimsical and often insightful missives much of the sadness and tribulation that seeped into Vonnegut’s life, whether as traumatized World War II veteran, struggling freelancer, stressed-out family guy, earnest writing instructor or international literary idol. “Anyone who imagines a writer’s life has ever been easy-even one who eventually achieves fame and fortune-will be disabused of that fantasy after reading these letters,” writes the book’s editor, Dan Wakefield. “And they will be inspired.”

Those last four words may mildly surprise readers who insist on seeing Vonnegut solely as the sullen grouch whose despair over humanity’s survival can be traced through such black-comedic novels as “Cat’s Cradle,” “Mother Night,” “The Sirens of Titan,” “Galapagos,” “Hocus Pocus” and his masterwork about the Allied firebombing of “Dresden, “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

The bedrock for his body of work can be found in the letter he wrote to his family in May 1945, recounting in plain yet vivid detail the horrors he experienced before, during and after the firebombing three months earlier.

Who could blame anyone for being a lifelong pessimist ever after? Still he persevered. And however gloomy Kurt Vonnegut could be, he left behind this book, one of his very best, that you could use to keep your own hopes kindled and your insides warm.