Kurt Vonnegut's experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany - the inspiration for his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five - still bear heavily on his mind in Armageddon in Retrospect, a posthumous collection of 12 short stories and observations assembled and introduced by his son, pediatrician and memoirist Mark Vonnegut.
As in most of his celebrated writings, Vonnegut strikes a fine balance here between the impersonal horrors of war and the mundane coping mechanisms of its victims, between past realities and future possibilities and, ultimately, between good and evil. In the title story, he conjures up an institute in Oklahoma which plumbs the theory that all the world's ills may be caused by the Devil. In a more down-to-earth musing, "Guns Before Butter," three captive American soldiers, starving in Dresden, find comfort in dreaming up recipes for fabulous dishes and inscribing them in cookbooks.
Vonnegut died at the age of 84 on April 11, 2007, two weeks before he was scheduled to give a speech at Butler University. Fortunately, he had provided his son an advance copy of his remarks, and this rambling, avuncular piece opens the book. Reading like an all-purpose graduation speech, it is shot through with quips, fond memories of home and family, sage observations and verbal mischief.
Seeded through the book are reproductions of Vonnegut's sketches, as well as a letter he wrote to his family at the end of World War II explaining why and where he'd been missing in action. "On about February 14th," he writes, "the Americans came over, followed by the [Royal Air Force]. Their combined labors killed 250,000 people in 24 hours and destroyed all of Dresden - possibly the world's most beautiful city. But not me."