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The Reading Life

'Sucker's Portfolio' and Kurt Vonnegut's literary afterlife

November 27, 2012|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Kurt Vonnegut at his home in New York in 1985.
Kurt Vonnegut at his home in New York in 1985. (Los Angeles Times )

In 1999, two years after the release of his final novel, “Timequake,” Kurt Vonnegut put out a small book called “God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian,” in which he imagined himself as the afterlife reporter for a New York radio station, using Jack Kevorkian’s suicide machine to produce near-death experiences that would take him to a no man’s land just outside the gates of heaven, where he would interview luminaries who had slipped the mortal coil. Eugene V. Debs, William Shakespeare, James Earl Ray, Karla Faye Tucker -- the mix was vintage Vonnegut, made up in equal parts of saints and sinners, all bound by their (very human) mortality.

“God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian” was a slight book, but in many ways emblematic of Vonnegut’s own afterlife, which has been active since his death in April 2007. In the years since, five books of new material have been published, compiled in large measure from the Vonnegut papers at Indiana University’s Lilly Library.

The bulk of these gather short fiction; Vonnegut left literally dozens of unreleased stories, most written in the 1950s and early 1960s, before he gave up on the form. “Short stories,” he told me in a 1997 interview, “are artificial; they are very clever misrepresentations of life. You can be fairly truthful about life if you have a little length, but a short story has to be awfully cute -- it has to be a con.”

I kept thinking about that comment as I read the first two installments of the latest Vonnegut short fiction project: “Sucker’s Portfolio,” a collection of six stories and one essay being issued as a weekly e-book serial by Amazon.com. Starting last week, and continuing until Jan. 2, Amazon will publish a new Vonnegut piece every Tuesday; the second is available today.

Both of the stories released so far illustrate Vonnegut’s dictum in different ways. In the first, “Between Timid and Timbuktu,” a young painter tries to have his own near-death experience (shades of “God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian”) to reconnect with his dead wife. In the second, “Rome,” a small-town New Hampshire theater company stages an obscure play, with an unexpected result.

Both represent what we might call the short story as punch line, in which the bulk of the action serves more or less as set-up to a last reveal. And yet, if this suggests why Vonnegut left them unpublished, each is worth reading in its own way, if only for what they tell us about how the author’s writing fits together -- all of it adding up to the components of a larger fictional universe.

We may not have read “Between Timid and Timbuktu,” but we recognize the title: as the fictional book of poems, published anonymously by Mrs. Winston Niles Rumfoord, that gives the first chapter of Vonnegut’s 1959 novel “The Sirens of Titan” its name. (Vonnegut also adapted the title for the 1972 PBS television production “Between Time and Timbuktu,” itself a grab-bag of stories and situations from his previously published work.)

The same is true of “Rome,” whose playwright character, Arthur Garvey Ulm, makes brief appearances in both the author’s 1965 novel “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” and “Timequake.”

Vonnegut, of course, was known for reusing his characters, especially his alter ego, a science fiction writer named Kilgore Trout. In his 1973 novel “Breakfast of Champions,” he liberated Trout and all the others, declaring: “I am approaching my fiftieth birthday, Mr. Trout. I am cleansing and renewing myself for the very different sorts of years to come. Under similar spiritual conditions, Count Tolstoi freed his serfs. Thomas Jefferson freed his slaves. I am going to set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career.”

I don’t know whether Trout will make an appearance in “Sucker’s Portfolio”; I’ll be reading each week to find out. Either way, what these stories have to tell us is that Vonnegut was nothing if not consistent, even in his literary afterlife.

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