Kurt Vonnegut came home from World War II intending to write a novel about the horrors he had witnessed during the firebombing of Dresden. It took him 23 years and countless drafts to produce Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel that made him a literary sensation.
I thought this book would be an exploration of that effort, but that’s not what it is. Roston casts about for a while between chronicling Vonnegut’s life and service in the war, summarizing the plot, and speaking to scholars about the novel before finally settling somewhat into his real subject: PTSD. The back half of the book is essentially an inquiry into whether or not Vonnegut suffered from PTSD and how much it may or may not have come through in his characterization of Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five. Roston speaks to people close to Vonnegut (including three of his children) to get their opinion on the effect that the war had on the author, who always maintained he did not suffer from PTSD. He also speaks with veterans who are fans of the novel, including several who suffer from PTSD themselves.
Perhaps it’s fitting that a book about Slaughterhouse-Five would jump around a bit, and if Roston were as gifted a writer as his subject it’s likely I wouldn’t have minded. As is though, it comes off as the author digging around until a coherent thesis presents itself. Roston gets pretty far afield at times too, going into general information about PTSD and the history of the U.S. military’s treatment of it and at one point taking some potshots at Malcolm Gladwell, which, enjoyable as that sounds, didn’t seem all that relevant to Kurt Vonnegut.
There were also a few factual errors I spotted which bugged me. They ranged from the insignificant (Roston misplaces the setting of Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night) to the glaring (in a discussion on writers who served Roston declares that J.D. Salinger “never saw combat as a soldier” despite Salinger famously having landed on Normandy on D-Day.)
On the whole this is a fairly light, unfocused examination of a book that deserves a more thorough, consistent analysis.