Fiction: "Look at the Birdie: Unpublished Short Fiction," by Kurt Vonnegut

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Occasionally from the nation's cultural attic come rare finds, like this wondrous new collection of Kurt Vonnegut short stories.

This collection holds 14 previously unpublished short stories written after World War II when Vonnegut was back home after witnessing the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war.

The stories are accompanied by Vonnegut's whimsical line drawings, and introduced by his best friend Sidney Offit, who is involved now in compiling a future Library of America Vonnegut volume.

In the 1950s and early '60s, Offit notes, Vonnegut had a growing family to support and published regularly in the good-paying magazines..

Most of the stories in this collection display Vonnegut's inimitable sense of the absurd and his tragicomic voice. They are fully formed and polished, with a quick set-up (husbands and wives are popular in this mix), a surreal or sci-fi undertone and a twist at the end.

The noirish title story is neatly constructed in a variation on the "man walked into a bar" plot. The opening lines:

"I was sitting in a bar one night, talking rather loudly about a person I hated -- and a man with a beard sat down beside me and said amiably, 'Why don't you have him killed?' "

By Kurt Vonnegut.
Delacorte ($27)

Before long the bearded man has drawn out the narrator, and his wife-accomplice, "a scrawny, thin-lipped woman with raddled hair and bad teeth," has aimed a Rolleiflex with a flashgun at him and said, "Look at the ..." you know what. And so proceeds a slick bit of blackmail by a "murder counselor."

"Shout About It from the Housetops" is a set piece likely inspired by the scandalous publication of Grace Metalious's "Peyton Place."

The story introduces Elsie Strang Morgan, author of a raw book about Hypocrite's Junction (but really Crocker's Falls) and her husband, Lance Magnum, from the perspective of a man selling aluminum storm windows.

Her book leads to marital discord, resolved by the narrator, who, in a neat wrap-up, has the last word.

In "Hello, Red," Red Mayo, a young man injured at sea returns to his home town to serve as a bridge tender.

Red discovers his dead former girlfriend has an 8-year-old daughter he can see is his by her vivid red hair. Vonnegut captures Red's pain, as he attempts a showdown with Eddie, the man who the girl thinks is her father.

The last story, "The Good Explainer," is a shaggy dog story about a husband and wife who visit a fertility expert. The pacing and intricately structured revelations deliver a bang-up ending

Reading "Look at the Birdie" is a bit like watching TV's "Mad Men," with the added knowledge that the stories are of their time, not re-creations. The mastery evident in these early stories provides a precious glimpse of a writer finding his wings in the years before he soared.

Jane Ciabattari is a free-lance writer in New York. First Published January 24, 2010 5:00 AM


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