Kurt Vonnegut’s plots were rarely simple, but his morals always were. That’s what made the outlandish satire of Cat’s Cradle and the meta-theatrics of Breakfast Of Champions feel so warmly, though bitterly, down-to-earth. In Vonnegut stories, it doesn’t matter if there’s a cataclysm, authorial intervention, or time-jumping; basic decency is the first and most important rule. And the other rules follow naturally: Be good to others, greed is unhealthy, killing and wanton destruction are wrong. As Dave Eggers points out in his introduction to While Mortals Sleep, a posthumous collection of Vonnegut’s unpublished fiction, Father Kurt was never afraid of providing ethical instruction in his work, which makes him rare in modern literature; these days, writers are more willing to point out what people are doing wrong than suggest ways of being right.
Since his death, Vonnegut has become something of a literary Tupac: Each year finds another slim volume of his formerly uncollected or unseen scribblings hitting the shelves. So it’s nice to say that, for once, the stories in Mortals deserve to be seen. None of them are revelatory, or anywhere near the heights of his longer work, or well-known short fiction like “Harrison Bergeron” and “EPICAC.” But Mortals shows a writer working to hone his approach to character, his understanding of how people lean on each other, and his most basic assumptions about human nature and need. Those who haven’t read much Vonnegut should look elsewhere, but fans and scholars will find a lot of value in seeing some key pieces of his perspective fall into place.
Mortals’ stories are by and large straight realism, dealing with people looking for love, people trying to prove themselves, marriages crumbling, fools floundering. The prose is straightforward and largely unadorned, although Vonnegut’s distinctive voice isn’t entirely present yet; there’s sincerity here, but not much black humor. This leads to the collection’s biggest flaw. Without a sense of play, the lack of urgency that runs through all Vonnegut’s fiction is more of a problem—there’s some sense of play here, but not enough. The collection’s best pieces make up for that with intensity; “Money Talks” is about the difficulties of forming attachments amid financial obligations, and “The Humbugs” shows two artists at their best and worst. Both reveal how, for Vonnegut, the harshest truths were the ones most worth laughing at.