Hidden gems from an American master
Fans of the author Kurt Vonnegut—who died in April 2007—are in for a treat with the publication of Look at the Birdie, a posthumous collection of 14 works of his short fiction. Written at the beginning of Vonnegut’s career and never before published, these stories offer a glimpse into the early imagination of the author who would later give the world such classics as Cat’s Cradle, Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five.
In Look at the Birdie, whimsical line drawings accompany the stories, each one penned by the author. Present, too, is Vonnegut’s signature sharp wit and dark humor: there is the fraudulent psychiatrist who describes a paranoiac as “a person who has gone crazy in the most intelligent, well-informed way,” and the small town police chief who says “If I’d known there was going to be a murder . . . I never would have taken the job of police chief.”
In the book’s introduction, Vonnegut’s close friend and fellow writer Sidney Offit offers one reason as to why these stories have remained unpublished for so long. Citing the “Rolled up balls of paper in the wastebaskets of his workrooms in Bridgehampton and on East Forty-eighth Street,” he describes Vonnegut as someone who “rewrote and rewrote.” He was “a master craftsman,” he says, “demanding of himself perfection of the story, the sentence, the word.”
The stories in Look at the Birdie may not be Vonnegut’s finest work, but in their immaturity are indications of the artist the man will become. He is a writer on the cusp, never flinching at the world before him yet also never forgetting to entertain as well. As Sidney Offit concludes, “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.”
Lacey Galbraith is a writer in Nashville.