"The sense of humor in the Vonnegut house was Schadenfreude . . . taking pleasure in others' misfortunes," writes Shields. "Listening one afternoon to Act 4 of Aida, Kurt Sr. [the novelist's father] remarked in a bemused voice that the lovers sealed in a temple would last a lot longer if they didn't sing so much."
If someone in the family fell down the stairs, another family member would rush to make fun of him. "Likewise, Kurt Jr., for the rest of his life, had an odd (and sometimes disconcerting) habit of laughing suddenly in the middle of describing something unpleasant," Shields writes.
But young Kurt also learned some positive things about humor. He got lessons in "how to be amusing" by listening to Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen, and Laurel and Hardy on the radio. "[For] being tutored in the art of creating situations, practicing timing, and delivering punch lines, the perfect tutor was the radio," Shields writes.
Vonnegut's mother was a major influence, though not always in a healthy way. "[Edith Lieber Vonnegut] was lovely, with auburn hair close to red, a complexion like porcelain, and blue-green eyes," according to Shields, whose own writing echoes Vonnegut's - simple and direct sentences, sparse but painterly description.
She was also "addicted to being rich," according to her son. When the family fortune declined, Shields writes, Edith "roamed the house wrapped in a ghostly drug-induced mist."
Vonnegut credited his mother with sparking his interest in literature, but believed he had inherited his father's gift for language. His mother tried and failed to make a living writing for magazines, but Vonnegut believed his father's letters revealed genuine talent as a writer.
Shields relates with keen insight the origin of Vonnegut's desire to become an author: "Edith Vonnegut wanted to be a writer living on Cape Cod where her family had spent halcyon weeks in the summer. As a retributive act, a gift to her spirit, he might one day try do the same thing."
In high school, Vonnegut sneaked a taste of the sherry his mother was drinking one afternoon. It was his first drink, but not his last. "Alcohol and cigarettes, two means of self-medicating his high and low mood swings, became addictions Kurt Jr. would never be able to shake," Shields writes, urging the reader to understand the function alcohol filled for Vonnegut.
Shields makes much of Vonnegut's struggles as a freelance writer, public relations man for General Electric, professor at the University of Iowa and Harvard, intimidated husband and father of seven, survivor of the firebombing of Dresden, son of a mother who committed suicide on Mother's Day. But the heart of the book begins with Vonnegut's first great commercial success, Slaughterhouse-Five.
In 1951, Vonnegut met 27-year-old Norman Mailer, who "was everything Kurt wanted to be," Shields writes.
"[Mailer] was my age," Vonnegut recalled. "He had been a college-educated infantry private like me, and he was already a world figure because of his great war novel [The Naked and the Dead]."
Vonnegut knew he had a big book in him about Dresden. It would be years before the book, Slaughterhouse-Five, saw print in 1969, but it made Vonnegut's name. When it hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, daughter Edie called it "the Big Ka BOOM."
In another acknowledgment of Vonnegut's cruel side, Shields relates how he betrayed his first agent, Knox Burger, and refused to give support to former wife Jane's posthumous book Angels Without Wings, about adopting Vonnegut's three orphaned nephews.
In 1970, photographer Jill Krementz met Vonnegut at his play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June. Actress Diane Wiest observed, "She gave the impression of stalking Kurt while he was running from her." Shields adds, "Jill came to take his photo and never left." They married in 1979.
She served as guide into monied New York (her stepfather was a wealthy jeweler), and Vonnegut saw himself in the eyes of a younger lover. He stayed with Krementz (who claimed she taught Vonnegut to make love) despite threatening divorce three times; in 1991, Jill became involved with another man, returning to Vonnegut when that man took up with another woman.
In 1991, I interviewed Vonnegut for Playboy. Shields cites the interview.
"What are you working on?" I asked Vonnegut.
"A divorce. Which is a full-time job," he said, with a wheezy chuckle.
Shields does not spare Krementz, describing her as "a narcissistic female much like the one who spurred his creativity - his icy mother. Creativity is often a response to emotional pain. A domineering, cold mother causes anxiety and neurosis that can serve as a goad (a lash, some would say) to artistic pursuits. Vonnegut confessed to a correspondent, 'I can't write unless I hurt myself some.' " Revisiting all that in his 50s was a risk to his "mental well-being," Shields writes.
In a letter to Shields, John Updike observed that Vonnegut's authorial voice "masked its pain with a shrug."
While walking Krementz' dog in March 2007, Vonnegut, 84 and fragile, tripped and struck his head on the sidewalk. He had joked that a dog would kill him, a tragicomic ending to a life and a career that embraced both extremes.
There are laughs to be had in this book, as there are in Vonnegut's, but at times, tears might stain your pages. They did mine.
Carole Mallory is the author of "Loving Mailer," a memoir of her affair with novelist Norman Mailer.