From author Sidney Offit to book mavens across the land, everyone seems anxious to let us know that the short stories in Look at the Birdie are substandard Vonnegut. In his introduction to this collection of 14 previously unpublished tales, Offit—a longtime Vonnegut chum, by the way—notes it's possible they never quite satisfied the author, who died in 2007. And Publishers Weekly magazine claims the pieces, written during Vonnegut's 20s and 30s, "lack the polish and humor" of his later work.
I've read plenty of Vonnegut, early and late, but not for some time, so I decided to approach Look at the Birdie without revisiting, say, such boomer manifestos as Welcome to the Monkey House or Breakfast of Champions. I'm glad I didn't: in reading the rough-hewn yet complete short stories gathered here, I felt as if I were encountering an undiscovered writer. Vonnegut veers from irony to sentimentality to terror to whimsicality, sometimes in the same piece (I'm thinking of "A Song for Selma," in which a high-school music teacher's belief in a student's hidden brilliance cycles through all those feelings—and more). Full disclosure: I didn't read the damning-with-faint-praise reviews beforehand, either.
"Confido" has such a delightfully futuristic and clever conceit that a writer reading it might slap her forehead in frustration that she didn't see the twist coming. Vonnegut's prescience about the world of personal computers and Internet applications is almost eerie in this early 1950s-vintage story, reminding us of his originality as a literary innovator and trailblazer whose parboiled pulp fiction was laced with a wistful sense of Everyman storytelling. And though some of the pieces are more about narration than invention—"F U B A R," set in the fictitious General Forge and Foundry Company, is one—enough of them contain such clever plot devices that you can almost hear Vonnegut's mind gears whirring smoothly as you read.
Even better than that, in longer pieces such as "Hall of Mirrors" you can recognize the nascent voice—sardonic, compassionate, and wholly American—that will eventually speak out in Vonnegut's novels. Only a wholly American writer could capture the surreality of a middle-class couple's odyssey through the American justice system in the lengthy "Ed Luby's Key Club," with its unsparing finale. This story, like the almost sweet "Hello, Red" and the nearly sly "Little Drops of Water," feels not tentative, but cautious. "Key Club" is not exactly dated—let's call it a trifle "settled" instead—and whereas it's clearly not literary fiction, it hasn't yet assumed the sci-fi or fantasy mantle of Vonnegut's later, longer works.
It's pleasing to hear Vonnegut's early voice and gaze upon his whimsical drawings (a handful of which punctuate the book), but in reading Look at the Birdie I couldn't shake the gnawing knowledge that the old master declined to have these stories published later in his life, when his global stature easily would have allowed him to. And though I happen to believe that consumption by fire is the only sure way to shield truly private documents from the prying gaze of others, sometimes an artist simply doesn't want certain hard copies released to the public, and his druthers should be honored. Perhaps Vonnegut wished his friends or family to be able to read his early work, or for it to be made available only to select researchers or biographers.
Ultimately, that is no longer our concern: relatives, executors, attorneys, and publishers have all had their say, and Look at the Birdie is now widely available. In the best of all possible worlds for Kurt Vonnegut, it might never have seen the light of day. But in the best of all possible worlds for us, his readers, here it is in our hands—a delightful immersion for both newcomers to Vonnegut's work and his legions of lifetime fans.
Bethanne Patrick is a book reviewer and host of "The Book Studio" for WETA-PBS.
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