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And So It Goes -- Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields, Henry Holt, 563 pages, $30. It's an established commonplace well into the 21st century that we're living in a hugely impressive age of literary biography. That's because writers are great subjects -- people whose public images in their lifetime were usually well-managed but, at the same time, were privately neurotic and unhappy and pathological and ill-managed enough in their lives to make for absorbing books by others later. A whole literary generation is now coming before us in biographies from Cheever to Barthelme to Heller to Vonnegut and beyond and there is much "new" in all of it, not least in Charles J. Shields' enormously compelling first major biography of a writer who long ago complained that would-be biographers weren't knocking his doors down but who, in life, gave Shields a bit of a hard time before cooperating.

What's new here is the degree of difference from the Vonnegut we'd always known or been able to expect -- that, for instance, he was unhappy enough to have attempted suicide by pills in the mid-'80s, or that he was wretchedly married enough to famous literary photographer Jill Krementz that when he DID make a suicide attempt, his wife even objected to the hospital where he was sent to recover. (His mother committed suicide on Mother's Day in 1944 when Vonnegut was home on leave.)

Vonnegut was sometimes tough on others, and Shields is tough on Vonnegut (but then so was the world; wait until you read about his treatment at Smith College). For all his compassion, Shields' portrait is as thoroughly readable as it is often scrupulous enough to be unpleasant. But it's hard for anyone at all curious about the literary generation now gone not to be absorbed by passages like this: "One afternoon a few years earlier after finishing lunch with Salman Rushdie in Sagaponeck, Kurt had called his neighbor Nelson Algren to come over and meet his new guest. A police officer answered the phone instead. 'This is his house but Mr. Algren is dead.' " -- Jeff Simon