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Remembering Vonnegut

Loree Rackstraw, Love As Always, Kurt: Vonnegut As I Knew Him (De Capo Press)

Amply filled as it is with flaws, Loree Rackstraw’s memoir of her decades-long relationship with Kurt Vonnegut, America’s high master of dark social satire, accomplishes at least one essential task: she helps us feel, in a time of seemingly world-wide insanity, the loss of one of the 20th century’s most critical and compassionate voices.

Love As Always, Kurt: Vonnegut as I Knew Him begins with Rackstraw’s first encounters with Vonnegut at the University of Iowa in 1965. Then a minor author who had won a small following from his early novels—Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater—Vonnegut was forced, like so many others before and after, to eke out a living teaching other aspiring novelists. His little kingdom was the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; Rackstraw was his student. The two sparked an unlikely romance, quickly rendered impossible by the sudden arrival of Vonnegut’s wife and child. He informed Rackstraw of this the day before they arrived.

And yet what was sparked never quite died. Love as Always, Kurt goes on to offer 40-odd-years of Rackstraw’s personal experiences and correspondences with the writer, with a few forays into literary criticism to boot. But though it sounds like she should be wellpositioned to show us how Vonnegut lived in a world that, despite its absurd and crippling chaos, he loved deeply, much in the book conspires to keep him from us.

Part of the problem is the simple facts of the story. After only two years in Iowa with Rackstraw, Vonnegut left for New York City. His literary celebrity shot into the stratosphere with the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, the fictionalized account of his survival of the Dresden firebombing in World War II. His life thereafter was one lived amongst the East Coast literati. He contentedly caroused with Joseph Heller, John Updike, Arthur Miller, and Richard Yates and illustrious former students like John Irving. Vonnegut and Rackstraw never again lived in the same state.

The result is that Rackstraw often struggles, especially in the first half of the book, to conjure a sense of proximity to Vonnegut and thread together a coherent narrative. There are periods in which she rarely sees or even hears from him. And when she does recall the periodic times they spend together throughout the decades—on birthdays or for literary events, or more intimate trips sailing in the Florida Keys and canoeing the Wapsipinicon River—she has neither the literary flair nor the memory to transport us to those particular moments in time.

Often, Racktsraw’s recollections feel strained, and it refracts her narration. She doesn’t draw vivid scenes, but rather dimly recalls them, and much of the information feels third party. There are countless lines in the vein of “It had been good to hear that…” or “I remember thinking that…” or “I was delighted to learn…” Her prose stiffens with the effort, and can be thin and inexpressive—like an artist trying to convey depth with too little paint on the palette.

It also doesn’t help that she never really bothers to clarify the noticeably unusual nature of their relationship. They were close, that much is evident; but it’s also apparent that Vonnegut never chose to be with her, and there are uncomfortable moments when Rackstraw’s place in his inner circle seems unclear. Combine that with her almost obsequious devotion and it can make you wonder: Who really is this woman?

Yet what Rackstraw does do is offer another space where fans can get a few degrees closer to the cherished American icon she loved. And the picture we get of Vonnegut in these pages is of a man who’s brilliantly idiosyncratic, blazingly witty, and certain that a few laughs, a simple act of kindness, or even the tiniest doodle could go a long way to curing that recurring theme in his work: “How much it hurts to be a human being.”

Her anecdotes and small remembrances, however poorly executed, do evoke his humanism and courage. We are told of Vonnegut writing a personal handwritten letter to a soldier in Iraq, working tirelessly to secure bill-paying jobs for impoverished writers and lobbying for better public education. We see a man who, amidst two failed marriages, dotes on his children and deeply mourns the breakdown of the American family in a cutthroat society. And who, despite his conviction that technology, entertainment, and basic human arrogance are making us dumber and more spectacularly self-destructive than ever, ceaselessly devoted his energy to political and humanitarian causes.

Tom Wolfe put it best when he said Vonnegut was “the closest thing we’ve had to Voltaire.” Unfortunately, we’d be lucky to ever have another spirit like his to make us laugh and think more critically about this crazy, careening world.


Ben Travers

Ben Travers (1886-1980) was a British playwright most famous for his farces.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2009

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