Book review: While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut

Posted February 26, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 3 Comments

Book review:  While Mortals Sleep by Kurt VonnegutWhile Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut
Published by Delacorte Press on January 25, 2011
Genres: Short Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 272
Source: my shelves

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In these previously unpublished gems, Vonnegut’s originality infuses a unique landscape of factories, trailers, and bars—and characters who pit their dreams and fears against a cruel and sometimes comically indifferent world.

Here are stories of men and machines, art and artifice, and how ideals of fortune, fame, and love take curious twists in ordinary lives. An ambitious builder of roads, commanding an army of bulldozers, graders, and asphalt spreaders, fritters away his free time with miniature trains—until the women in his life crash his fantasy land. Trapped in a stenography pool, a young dreamer receives a call from a robber on the run, who presents her with a strange proposition. A crusty newspaperman is forced onto a committee to judge Christmas displays—a job that leads him to a suspiciously ostentatious ex-con and then a miracle. A hog farmer’s widow receives cryptic, unsolicited letters from a man in Schenectady about “the indefinable sweet aches of the spirit.” But what will she find when she goes to meet him in the flesh?

(from the inside flap)

In the Foreword, Dave Eggers writes:

I’ve been thinking a lot about what we lost when we lost Kurt Vonnegut, and the main thing that keeps coming to mind is that we lost a moral voice.  We lost a very reasonable and credible—though not to say staid or toothless—voice who helped us know how to live.

Vonnegut has been one of my favorite authors since reading Welcome to the Monkey House in high school and I agree with Eggers.  In everything Vonnegut wrote—short stories, essays, novels—there is a lesson to be learned about the human condition.  Whether it’s about love, money, fame, war or any of the other various subjects he wrote about, Vonnegut always made his very reasonable and moral voice heard.

The short stories in While Mortals Sleep were previously unpublished and were written when Vonnegut’s career as a writer was just getting started.  As I learned from Eggers’ Foreword, Vonnegut was selling his short fiction to magazines like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post and the structure of these stories reflects what those magazines were looking for at the time:  a solid plot, simple prose and conflict, and an unexpected twist at the end.  And although these stories are simpler than others he wrote later on, they are certainly no less interesting.  Vonnegut was a wonderful writer even at the beginning of his career.  The characters are well-written; the plots are simple, but solid and intriguing; the scenery is described well and easily pictured; and the plot twists are great.  What makes these stories so good was Vonnegut’s complete grasp of life and human nature.  The characters are the kinds of people we are apt to encounter in our everyday lives.  Their situations are not always common, but Vonnegut’s writing makes it seem like this kind of stuff happens every day.  And Vonnegut tries to teach us some very good lessons with these stories.  For example:  be yourself; don’t judge people by what’s on the outside; life is always unpredictable; and sometimes when you play a joke on someone, the joke ends up being on you.

There are sixteen stories in While Mortals Sleep and while I liked them all, I definitely had my favorites.  “The Man Without No Kiddleys” was particularly funny to me because I have known men with these same personalities and could easily picture them as the characters in the story, making a bet about how many kidneys they still have between the two of them.  And “kiddleys”?  Too funny.  In “Tango,” I loved that dancing the tango was what brought Robert Brewer back to life (figuratively speaking) in a boring, stuffy, isolated town.  If you’re not familiar with Vonnegut’s imagination and writing style, here’s a taste in which he describes what “dancing” means in the town of Pisquontuit:

Dancing at Pisquontuit was an almost imperceptible shifting of weight from one foot to the other, with the feet remaining in place, from three to six inches apart.  This seemly shifting of weight was all things to all music, samba, waltz, gavotte, fox-trot, bunny hug, or hokeypokey.  No matter what new dance craze came along, Pisquontuit overpowered it easily.  The ballroom could have been filled with clear gelatin to shoulder height without hampering the dancers.  It could have been filled to a point just below the dancers’ nostrils, for that matter, for agreement on every subject was so complete that discussion had been reduced to a verbal shorthand resembling asthma.

I absolutely love his sense of humor.  And finally, what the main character’s mother ended up doing in “With His Hand on the Throttle” was just hilarious and awesome.  I have never been a huge fan of short fiction only because I would rather read a long, meaty book, but I love Vonnegut’s short fiction.  Time and time again he proves that he is in no way limited by the short story structure, fitting a lot of good substance into so few words.

I would recommend this to anyone who is looking for great fiction and great writing.  Even if you aren’t usually a fan of short fiction, like me, I still think you’ll enjoy this book.  If you have never read anything by Kurt Vonnegut before, you’re missing out, in my opinion.  Pick up this book—or any of his others—and give him a read.  You won’t be disappointed.  To those of you who are already fans of Vonnegut, I think you’ll agree that it’s so nice to see his previously unpublished writing being published now for us to enjoy.  The stories in While Mortals Sleep are typical, wonderful Vonnegut (read: unique and refreshing) and I really would recommend it to any and all fiction readers.

(Click here to learn more about Kurt Vonnegut.)

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  • Just a note to let you know about a book blog I’ve started with a different twist: “Writing Kurt Vonnegut.” Every Saturday, I post another excerpt from my notebook as Vonnegut’s biographer— profiles of the people I met, the difficulties encountered, and the surprises, such as finding 1,500 letters he thought he had lost forever. It’s a blog written in episodes about being a literary detective.

    “Writing Kurt Vonnegut” is only three weeks old but has already been linked to from GalleyCat, 3 Quarks Daily, the Book Bench, the Rumpus, Identity Theory, Maud Newton, and Litopia. It’s receiving several hundred hits a day.

    Perhaps you’d like to give it a look at http://www.writingkurtvonnegut.com

    All the best,

    Charles J. Shields
    And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, November 2011)

    • Thank you for bringing your website to my attention, Charles… I’m looking forward to this biography.

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