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Tuesday, September 21, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Vonnegut's `Snuff Box': Some Very Likely Stories

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- Author appearance

urt Vonnegut will discuss "Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction" at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Sponsored by Elliott Bay Book Co. and Seattle Arts & Lectures. Tickets are $5; for information call Elliott Bay at 206-624-6600or 1-800-962-5311. -------------------------------

Sometimes life almost imitates art.

In "Timequake," Kurt Vonnegut's 1997 novel and purportedly the last one he would ever write, Vonnegut's alter ego, Kilgore Trout, is handed one of the thousands of short stories he has written and discarded and forgotten during his lifetime. He's quite impressed with it and thinks, "How the hell did I do that?"

While Vonnegut was at work on this scene, his friend and scholar Peter Reed, a professor at the University of Minnesota, was collecting all of Vonnegut's previously uncollected short stories: stuff Vonnegut wrote and published in the '50s and early `60s - and then quickly forgot.

"I hadn't saved (the stories)," Vonnegut told The Seattle Times by phone recently. "I never thought I'd amount to a hill of beans so I saved practically nothing. But Peter did this wonderful archaeological work and turned them all up. I wouldn't have known how to do it, and probably wouldn't have been strongly motivated to do it."

So what did Vonnegut, a writer whose blackly comic imagination defined the 1960s and 1970s for millions of baby boomers, think of his early work? Was he impressed? Did he think, like Kilgore Trout, "How the hell did I do that?"

Not quite.

"The premise of a story would really hook me," Vonnegut says with a laugh. "Then I would think, " `Gee, I could do even more with that now.' The temptations were huge. You know, painters have been caught in the Louvre working on their own paintings and have had to be dragged away.

"So, sure, I would have loved to retouch all of these stories but was persuaded not to."

Vonnegut rewrote the endings to only three of the stories, making them, as he writes in an afterward to the collection, "fakes on the order of Piltdown Man, half human being, half the orangutan I used to be." The other twenty stories were left relatively untouched.

The result, "Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction" (Putnam, $23.95), will probably please Vonnegut fans less than his previous collection of short stories, 1968's "Welcome to the Monkey House."

For one thing there is less science fiction here, and thus less of the far-out imagination that is Vonnegut's staple. The book is almost a time capsule from the 1950s. There are stories of high-school bands and real estate brokers and sellers of aluminum storm windows and screens. World War II often hovers in the background with a quiet omniscience. But certain Vonnegut themes emerge: his interest in American class tensions, for example, and his love of goofy words (Bagombo, Marittima-Frascati).

Vonnegut is unapologetic about one aspect of his forgotten stories.

"I like to give all my characters jobs. When I teach I say, `I like work stories.' He adds, for all the would-be writers out there, "So if you write a story, would you please make it a work story? Make sure this person has a job."

In the late '40s, Vonnegut worked in the Public Relations department at General Electric, but found he could make more money selling short stories to weekly magazines like Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and Cosmopolitan. It was a seller's market.

"(The magazines) were the way to get ads inside a person's front door," Vonnegut recalls. What changed our short-story culture? Two words: Tee Vee.

"It was almost like a storm front," Vonnegut says. "Suddenly everyone was buying TVs, and the entertainment was on quite a high level, too. And TV was a much better buy for advertisers than the magazines. . .

"What TV does, which we ink-and-paper people could never do, is give people artificial friends and relatives," Vonnegut says, returning to the "extended family" theme he's written about for decades. "That's what (Ray) Bradbury's (`Farenheit 451') was about. A woman sat in a chair in the middle of her room with TV screens on the walls. This was her family, this was her life."

And so the bottom fell out of the short-story writing business and Vonnegut had to look elsewhere for work. He sold cars, he wrote ads. Eventually he got a job teaching writing at the University of Iowa. In 1968, he hit it big with his novel "Slaughterhouse Five."

But for a brief moment, the short-story culture allowed him, as he says in the afterword to "Bagombo,", a "paid literary apprenticeship," something not possible for today's young writers.

"If I were a young writer today I'd still set out to be a writer," Vonnegut maintains. "But I wouldn't marry, because I couldn't put a family at risk."

As for his contention that TV allows for artificial friends and relatives that literature cannot, it doesn't take into account, well, himself. For many readers, Vonnegut is a friend of the family - perhaps because more than any other literary figure, he writes directly to the reader. He's the crazy uncle everyone wishes they had.

Vonnegut is flattered by the thought but it doesn't mean he's interested in writing novels again.

"I'm 76, I'll soon be 77, and I'm completely in print - including my earliest stories now - and so I've been allowed to say everything I wanted to say. And I continue to say it because the books all exist and are easily available.

"So, I don't know, if you've got any ideas. . ." He crumples up this thought. "Hell, you write the next book, all right?"

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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