I just finished Man Without a Country, a collection of short autobiographical and political essays, or scraps of essays. It's very much an old man's book: pessimistic and sentimental and packed with anecdotes.
Here's my favorite part (though there are lots of great bits):
I was a writer in 1968. I was a hack. I'd write anything to make money, you know. And what the hell, I'd seen this thing, I'd been through it, and so I was going to write a hack book about Dresden. You know, the kind that would be made into a movie and where Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and the others would play us. I tried to write, but I couldn't get it right. I kept writing crap.
So I went to a friend's house -- Bernie O'Hare, who'd been my pal. And we were trying to remember funny stuff about our time as prisoners of war in Dresden, tough talk and all that, stuff that would make a nifty war movie. And his wife, Mary O'Hare, blew her stack. She said, "You were nothing but babies then."
And that is true of soldiers. They are in fact babies. They are not movie stars. They are not Duke Wayne. And realizing that was the key, I was finally free to tell the truth. We were children and the subtitle of Slaughterhouse Five became The Children's Crusade.
Why had it taken me twenty-three years to write about what I had experienced in Dresden? We all came home with stories, and we all wanted to cash in, one way or another. And what Mary O'Hare was saying, in effect, was "Why don't you tell the truth for a change?"
And so he wrote a war novel that's packed with aliens and space travel. Instead of making his experience of war fit the expected narrative, he wrote it his own way, and it's about as true a book as you could hope to read.
Vonnegut was great because he never wasted a minute retelling all those comforting lies.