Kurt Vonnegut coined the phrase “We are what we pretend to be,” and it is a fitting title for this book that pulls together his first and last written works. Both were unpublished until now and include his first novella –“Basic Training”– and a novel in progress at the time of his death–If God Were Alive Today.
While the stories are competent, the concept of putting them together in one volume is more compelling. Between these two stories exists a long and celebrated literary career. These are the two stories that connect all the dots.
“Basic Training” is a basic story that provides a vague glimpse of the writer Vonnegut would become. At the other end, If God Were Alive Today is characteristic of the author’s style and charms but lacks the sharp edge of his best work.
Don’t consider that a slight. Hardly anything compares to his best works.
Vonnegut scholars will likely find the volume more valuable than a casual fan would. What makes this an interesting read is being able to see the development of a writer. In the beginning, he was straightforward and concise. “Basic Training” is a serviceable short story pulled from his experience working on a farm as a teenager. It features a few interesting characters and an enjoyable payoff.
Alternately, If God Were Alive Today is much less idealistic and linear. Even looking at the main characters of the two stories draws a striking difference and reflects completely on the young man Vonnegut was versus what he would become later in life.
One is a young artist sent to work on a farm. The other is an aging comedian struggling with life, death and divorce. Neither are Vonnegut’s best characters, but they are important steps in the life of an author and man, pretending to be something.