The 5 Best Kurt Vonnegut Books

by Tony Shea on November 11, 2013


kurt-vonnegutWriting 14 novels between 1952 and 1997, Kurt Vonnegut established a legacy as one of the great writers of the 20thy century, crafting a literary style that was utterly unique, fusing science-fiction with satire, as he examined the themes of power and control, free will, determinism, genocide, madness and war. Oh, and he was funny, too. Despite the seriousness of his themes, Vonnegut was just about the funniest writer America ever produced. With the exception of his first book, Player Piano, all of his books were tidy affairs. Slaughterhouse Five isn’t even 50,000 words. But these tightly crafted novels have much to say. Below is my list of the 5 best Kurt Vonnegut books.

5. Bluebeard200px-Bluebeard(Vonnegut)

So I went to New York City to be born again. It was and remains easy for most Americans to go somewhere else and start anew. I wasn’t like my parents. I didn’t have any supposedly sacred piece of land or shoals of friends to leave behind. Nowhere has the number zero been of more philosophical value than in the United States…. and when the train plunged into a tunnel under New York City, with it’s lining of pipes and wires, I was out of the womb and into the birth canal.

Vonnegut’s later day masterpiece, published in 1987, is the fictional auto-biography of Rabo Karabekian, an abstract expressionist painter who, like Bluebeard the pirate, has a secret locked away in in his barn.

4. Cat’s Cradle200px-CatsCradle(1963)

If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.

Vonneguts’ 4th novel, from 1963, was a satiric look at the escalating arms race. In the book, the weapon of mankind’s ultimate destruction was not the atom bomb, or any other kind of bomb, but ice-nine, a single spec of which once it came in contact with water would kill every single living thing on the plant, freezing the world as solid as a statue.

3. Breakfast of Champions


“Dear Sir, poor sir, brave sir.” he read, “You are an experiment by the Creator of the Universe. You are the only creature in the entire Universe who has free will. You are the only one who has to figure out what to do next – and why. Everybody else is a robot, a machine. Some persons seem to like you, and others seem to hate you, and you must wonder why. They are simply liking machines and hating machines. You are pooped and demoralized, ” read Dwayne. “Why wouldn’t you be? Of course it is exhausting, having to reason all the time in a universe which wasn’t meant to be reasonable.”

Champions was Vonnegut’s great 70’s book. Dwanye Hoover owns a Pontiac dealership – oh and he is about to go insane. Kilgore Trout is a famous science fiction writer, although he doesn’t know it yet. These two men’s paths will eventually cross in a moment of pinnacle violence as Vonnegut, himself, looks on in this hilarious meta-fiction,  coming to life in his own book to finally set his characters free.

2. Slaughterhouse-Fivesh5cover

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

Vonnegut used his own experiences as an allied soldier during the fire bombing of Dresden during World War II as the basis of this story that was first published in 1969. Widely considered by many to be his best book, Slaughterhouse Five comes in at #18 on the Modern Library’s list of Greatest Novels and recounts the adventures of Billy Pilgrim, who has come unstuck in time, traveling without apparent cause back and forth between his youth and his old age, and from the German battlefields to his zoo enclosure on the planet Tralfamadore, where he lives with former porn star Montana Wildhack. The subtitle of Slaughterhouse-Five is The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, and so in no uncertain terms the book is a condemnation of all of those who make war.

1. Mother Night

200px-MotherNight(Vonnegut)There are plenty of good reason for fighting,” I said, “but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive. “It’s that part of an imbecile,” I said, “that punishes and vilifies and makes war.

Vonnegut’s third novel from 1961 is the coup de grace as far as a I am concerned. If Slaughterhouse was Sgt. Pepper’s than Mother Night would be Revolver, which is to say that work that functions as the catapult to the masterwork. Stylistically and thematically it is the other side of the Slaughterhouse-Five coin. The story of Howard W. Campbell Jr., a Nazi propagandist secretly working as a spy for the allies during World War II, the story is a cautionary tale of how we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

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Tony Shea ( Editor-in-Chief, New York)

Tony Shea is based in New York, having recently moved from Los Angeles after more than a decade on the sunny coast. His short films have won numerous awards and screened at major festivals around the world including Comic-Con. As a musician, he is the lead singer for Los Angeles rock n’ roll band Candygram For Mongo (C4M) who has been a featured artist on Clear Channel Radio’s Discover New Music Program and whose songs have been heard on Battlestar Gallactica (Syfy Channel) and Unhitched (Fox) among other shows and films.

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