As the most beloved literary pessimist of the last 50 years, Kurt Vonnegut spent a lifetime describing the end of the world in the nicest possible terms. When he died, it left a hole in the lives of his fans that will likely never be filled, due in no small part to Vonnegut's distinctive voice. He was simple without condescension, bitter but never completely hopeless—getting bad news from Father Kurt was like ice cream after a trip to the dentist. A new collection of Vonnegut's unpublished stories about his most (and least) favorite subject attempts to ease the pain of his loss, but its ramshackle charms fail to live up to its author's legacy.
Armageddon In Retrospect features 11 short stories on war, along with an early letter home from Vonnegut, a speech he wrote but died before delivering, and an introduction by his son, Mark. The speech and the introduction come closest to Vonnegut's style: short paragraphs, lots of empty space, and a complete lack of semicolons. But the speech feels tired, the best lines ("Maybe we should outlaw dentistry. And maybe doctors should quit curing pneumonia, which used to be called 'the old people's friend.'") fading together into a grumpy haze. The introduction has more kick, but there's something uncomfortable in reading a son trying so hard to emulate his father. When Mark Vonnegut fumbles a joke early in, it's impossible not to feel that his dad would've handled it better.
The stories that make up the bulk of the volume are a mixed bag. In the best of them, "Guns Before Butter," a group of American POWs debate what their first meal will be once they're released. It's funny and low-key, and it manages to make its point without didacticism. The rest don't succeed nearly as well. "The Unknown Soldier," a short piece about the first baby born in the new millennium, is slight and mean-spirited, while "The Unicorn Trap," about a family in the Middle Ages forced to make a difficult choice, is overwritten to the point of self-parody. As always, Vonnegut pleads for understanding and decency, but here, the message is muddled by clunky prose and predictable plots. A little context might've helped, but as is, Armageddon strives to be a middle finger to the heavens, and winds up more like a shrug.