It seems like writers are the only public artists with private lives left. Aside from a few familiar faces, nobody who makes a living putting pen to page expects the hassle of paparazzi, the tell-all tabloids, or the gossiping over who screwed who, and how thoroughly. Paradoxically, that’s why it’s often so disappointing when a famous author gets revealed: All that mystery, and here’s just another grumpy, self-centered old coot with bad breath and political views that don’t entirely make sense. Kurt Vonnegut’s well-worn image seems impossible to deflate, and thankfully, longtime friend and professor emeritus Loree Rackstraw doesn’t do anything to tarnish the man’s reputation with her new memoir, Love As Always, Kurt: Vonnegut As I Knew Him. That doesn’t make her book worthwhile, however.
When Rackstraw and Vonnegut first met in 1965, at the University Of Iowa’s famed writers’ workshop, he had already been published, but outside of a cult following, he had yet to build his reputation. Over the next 40 years, his star rose, and through it all, Rackstraw remained a reverent fan and loyal friend. Vonnegut got divorced, remarried, had a passel of children, and suffered through countless depressions, while Rackstraw struggled through her own share of personal ups and downs. In their letters and time together, they found strength in each other, as well as in the creative energies that drove both their lives.
Or something like that. While there’s no question that she was close to Vonnegut, Rackstraw’s recounting of their relationship is as tedious and unimaginatively sincere as a eulogy for a dead dog. It’s nothing against her to suggest that she lacks her subject’s wit or insight—most people do—but Rackstraw refuses to offer any real piece of herself in her work, instead skipping over events like a stone on a sea of blandly empowering adjectives. The excerpts from Vonnegut’s correspondence are entertaining but short, and Rackstraw’s own insights reinforce the standard difficulties of deconstructing an author who went out of his way to be straightforward. Only her honesty in detailing Vonnegut’s waning years give the book any weight; otherwise, considering the volume of autobiographical material already available on Vonnegut, this is about as rewarding as a Beatles tribute album, and takes three times as long to get through.