We Are What We Pretend To Be

The First and Last Works


By Kurt Vonnegut

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Called “our finest black-humorist” by The Atlantic Monthly, Kurt Vonnegut was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Now his first and last works come together for the first time in print, in a collection aptly titled after his famous phrase, We Are What We Pretend To Be.

Written to be sold under the pseudonym of “Mark Harvey,” Basic Training was never published in Vonnegut’s lifetime. It appears to have been written in the late 1940s and is therefore Vonnegut’s first ever novella. It is a bitter, profoundly disenchanted story that satirizes the military, authoritarianism, gender relationships, parenthood and most of the assumed mid-century myths of the family. Haley Brandon, the adolescent protagonist, comes to the farm of his relative, the old crazy who insists upon being called The General, to learn to be a straight-shooting American. Haley’s only means of survival will lead him to unflagging defiance of the General’s deranged (but oh so American, oh so military) values. This story and its thirtyish author were no friends of the milieu to which the slick magazines’ advertisers were pitching their products.

When Vonnegut passed away in 2007, he left his last novel unfinished. Entitled If God Were Alive Today, this last work is a brutal satire on societal ignorance and carefree denial of the world’s major problems. Protagonist Gil Berman is a middle-aged college lecturer and self-declared stand-up comedian who enjoys cracking jokes in front of a college audience while societal dependence on fossil fuels has led to the apocalypse. Described by Vonnegut as, “the stand-up comedian on Doomsday,” Gil is a character formed from Vonnegut’s own rich experiences living in a reality Vonnegut himself considered inevitable.

Along with the two works of fiction, Vonnegut’s daughter, Nanette shares reminiscences about her father and commentary on these two works—both exclusive to this edition.

In this fiction collection, published in print for the first time, exist Vonnegut’s grand themes: trust no one, trust nothing; and the only constants are absurdity and resignation, which themselves cannot protect us from the void but might divert.


I am not a student of my father's writing, but I am his daughter and would like to share what I know about both Basic Training and If God Were Alive Today, both of which are somewhat autobiographical. Basic Training is a story that was never accepted for publication. If God Were Alive Today is the beginning of a novel that was never finished. They were written at the beginning and end, respectively, of my father's writing career, fifty years apart.
I was not even born when my father wrote Basic Training in 1950, but over the years I could swear I remember him talking about someone from his childhood called "the General." As I read the story I felt eerily close to my father, as if I were seeing through his sixteen-year-old eyes, and we were in Indiana in the company of his old friends. So I called his childhood friend, Majie Failey, now ninety years old, to see if there was any fact behind this piece of fiction.
As I gave Majie the broad strokes of Basic Training, I hit black gold and the memories spilled out of her. My father spent many happy summers on Rainbow Farm, just outside Indianapolis. The General in the story was in fact based on my grandfather's cousin, who had been a captain in the Rainbow Division during World War I and ran his family and farm in the military fashion. My father was in love with one of the three Captain's daughters, Mary, who was quite beautiful and his own age. The Captain wouldn't allow his daughters to visit the city, so, even though my father was terrified of the Captain, he would bicycle out to the farm on weekends and do chores just to be near Mary. As the phone call with Majie went on, it became clear that she had become unstuck in time. She talked about a stallion named Ezekiel, remembering him up on his hind legs snorting, almost hitting the rafters of his stall. The red-haired, green-eyed boy was based on Ben Hitz, and inspiration for the guy in the polished boots and military garb had to be Dad's cousin Sonny Mueller. Ben Hitz was my father's best man when he married my mother.
Later in his life, when my father said he wanted to go home, he always meant to his childhood and home in Indianapolis. This story is, in large part, about sixteen-year-old Kurt Vonnegut at his happiest, before the war.
My twenty-year-old daughter was elated to learn that her grandfather was close to thirty when he wrote Basic Training. She felt it meant that time was on her side and she had a chance at being a good writer after all. When my children romanticize the writer's life, I remind them that their grandfather worked at his craft for years with little reward. I describe the piles of rejection letters from publishers that wound up as decoupage on wastebaskets in our house.
It took years of work, producing stories like Basic Training, while he was holding other jobs and supporting his young family, for my dad to develop his very own, finely tuned voice. Only two years after he wrote Basic Training, Player Piano was published.
Gil Berman, the main character in If God Were Alive Today, was conceived in my father's slightly charred, seventy-eight-year-old brain in the year 2000. A month before my father came to Northampton, Massachusetts, to be near family after being exiled from his brownstone in New York City, the upper story of his house caught fire, and he wound up in a hospital burn unit with complications from smoke inhalation. His wife of twenty-five years told him that he was not welcome back until the damage was repaired.
I had been squawking for years about how my father was abducted from me by fame and fortune back in 1969 when I was fifteen, the year of Slaughterhouse Five. Northampton had a lot to offer—grandchildren, nephews and nieces, writers and artists. When it came time for my father's discharge from the rehab facility, two of my brothers drove to rescue and deliver him to the Hotel Northampton and to me. They called me an hour outside of Northampton and announced, "We're delivering your father."
He was miserable upon arrival. He snapped at me a lot. So much so that I left him a note at the Hotel Northampton, along with keys to an apartment within walking distance from the hotel, saying that I was at his disposal, but only if and when he asked. He took the keys when no one was looking and climbed the steep staircase to the waiting apartment, where he hung the very few pieces of clothing he had. His new home came with a computer to write on and a charming and witty landlady who gradually brought out the courtly Kurt Vonnegut; I saw a little color come back to his cheeks.
He could walk to Serio's, our local grocery store, where they even carried Pall Malls. The Tunnel Bar was practically in his backyard, a place so darkened he would not be recognized, and a place where he could smoke and drink. He made friends with all the clerks at the local hardware store, probably because, as a boy in Indianapolis, he had worked at Vonnegut Hardware. The first thing he bought for his new life was a Waring blender. He could walk to my house for dinner if he felt like it. Sometimes he would come by with shopping bags full of candy and soda for his grandchildren, commanding them to "Live it up!"
I brought my father to a performance of Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain at The Calvin Theater not long after he arrived. My father was transfixed. He communicated his agreement with Mr. Twain's words with quiet coughs and sighs. Toward the end of the performance, Mark Twain said something about having deeply disappointed his wife. This elicited from my father a deep groan. We stayed behind to meet Hal Holbrook. I watched as the two Mark Twains spoke to each other with utmost respect, almost reverence.
Another good day was when I watched my dad goose Gloria Steinem on the steps of the Smith College Chapel, where she was about to deliver a sermon to Smithies. Gloria Steinem turned around, completely composed, and said, "Oh, hello Kurt."
My father and I did a lot of walking when he was in Northampton. The talks were always intense, but they were often broken up by his sudden theatrics, such as when he saw a squirrel freeze in the street with a nut in his mouth, and shouted, "Hey, you, squirrel, drop that nut!" We'd double over laughing for an unnatural amount of time and then return to the very serious subject at hand. He was trying to figure out how to resolve his marital problems. He was considering faking his own death as a possible solution.
Though it had been more than thirty years since I had had any extended amount of time with my father, not much had changed. I still worried that he would not answer the door and I might find him dead. Growing up, suicide was always considered a possible and even logical outcome of my father's life. But my father always answered the door, and I usually found him in the act of writing, which included working on the New York Times crossword puzzle. Sitting next to him on his purple velvet futon couch, I'd listen to what he was trying to write. As he talked, his long toes would knead the floor, and I could feel heat waves coming off his head as he was working an idea. He appeared to me then as an exquisite alien creature, as if his giant brain and long toes were trying to extract something from another planet. He told me he was failing to connect with anything worthwhile that day, except his main character, Gil Berman, who might have to fake his own death.
Most times I'd find my father in a very receptive mood to my prying questions, like "How many times have you been in love?" His answer was instantaneous, and he held up three long fingers. I was relieved to hear my mother was one of them. His explanation of the merits and failures of each true love struck me as completely fair. Whether or not my mother really did not love him enough did not matter; he felt that love was lacking, and I believed him. As I was walking out the door with his laundry, I suggested that we go to therapy together. He answered, "There's too much to talk about!" There was nothing unloving in this answer; he was absolutely right. Sometimes the best thing for me was to tell a good joke and tell it well. When I told him about the old man who confessed to a youth with a colorful Mohawk haircut that he had fucked a parrot many years before, and was wondering if the young man might be his son, my father told me that my delivery was elegant.
Once, I brought to my father's attention a story in the Boston Globe about a stockbroker who had killed his wife and staked her head to a pole in the front yard for the entire neighborhood to see. The husband explained that he had gone bonkers when the wife overcooked the pasta for supper. My father paused for about three seconds and replied, "Well, we don't know what she did before that."
Though my father was trying to divorce his wife, the phone calls from the brownstone in New York City were incessant. I was present for one such phone call that went on for a very long time. As far as I could tell, it involved a broken appliance that my father, being the man of the house, should fix somehow. Finally, my father yelled, "Call General Electric for Christ's sake!" Then he yanked the phone line out of the wall.
After almost a year in Northampton, he went back to his brownstone in New York City, knowing full well he was walking back into a burning house, but it was familiar.
Gil Berman was conceived and born out of the toxic circumstances of my father's life at that time. So, of course, Gil Berman and the story are quite ill, but there is hilarity, wisdom, and redemption along the way. No one but my father could cap the darkest, most honest moment in this story with a fart.
My father did with words what Fred Astaire did with his body, something out of this world that no one else could possibly pull off. Even as an old man my dad defied gravity and did the audacious thing of creating something out of nothing.
Nanette Vonnegut

Basic Training
A Novella

"In many ways, Haley, this is the nicest room in the house, even though it is little and has only one window," said Annie Cooley, a woman in her middle twenties. She sat on the edge of the cot, her heavy legs crossed, and watched her sixteen-year-old cousin unpack his small suitcase. "The view of the elm grove and the duck pond is very good, and you'll have a lot more privacy than any of us in this end of the house."
Haley Brandon arranged his three white shirts in one corner of a deep bureau drawer, nodding absently at the end of each of Annie's sentences. He was tired after a fitful night aboard a railroad coach, and he was glad that Annie was content to talk on and on without calling upon him to contribute to the conversation. She was a complete stranger to him, and not a very interesting-looking one at that. He would not have known what to say to her, if it had been up to him to lead the talking. He was something less than adept at making new friends quickly, he thought uncomfortably. He glanced out of the window. Not even the land was remotely reminiscent of anything he had seen before.
"Now you take Kitty and Hope," Annie continued, referring to her younger sisters. "Their windows look right out on the new hog barn and the tool shed, and I've got the silo to look at." She grimaced, and two deep dimples appeared in her plump cheeks. "I've really got the worst room of all. The walls are just like cardboard, and I'm right next to the General's room. He's moving around until all hours, so it's a wonder I get any sleep at all. And I'm the one who always has to get up first, too."
"You all call your father the General?" asked Haley.
"Oh, after the war, everybody around here called him that, and we just kind of picked it up, too. My sister Hope says it's because he's more like a general than a father, but that's just some of her mean smartiness. Nobody ever had a better daddy than we do." She nodded twice in affirmation of her statement.
"I would like to hang a picture over my bed," said Haley. "Would it hurt anything if I drove a nail in the wall?"
"Oh, I guess it would be all right, if you'd be very careful not to crack the plaster. But that's for the General to say, of course," said Annie. "You can ask him when you meet him at suppertime. He ought to be in a pretty good mood, because he figures he's got Caesar and Delores licked."
"More cousins?" Haley asked abstractedly. He was examining a framed photograph, which had been swathed in a pair of flannel pajamas in the heart of his suitcase.
Annie chuckled appreciatively. "Maybe you'll think they look like cousins when you see them tomorrow," she said. "Caesar and Delores are the horses who pull the wagon. They ran away with a load last week, and they tore up the vegetable garden before they finally came up against a fence. The General's out today, trying some new bits that look like bicycle chains with sawteeth along one edge. He says if those two get fancy with him again, he'll saw their heads off before they can run ten yards." She seemed to relish the picture. "That's why he wasn't here to welcome you this afternoon," Annie explained. "He's out driving the team himself to make sure they know who's boss now. Ordinarily, he only goes out and works on D-days."
"I'm afraid I don't know about D-days," said Haley politely.
"Didn't I explain all about that? Well, you would have seen all about it on the bulletin board anyway. Tuesdays and Thursdays are D-days, which means that everybody, including Kitty, Hope, and the General, has to go out and work a full day on the farm. Won't make much difference to you, I guess. I understand you're going to be working a full week. The only difference on D-days will be that you'll be on D-squad instead of C-squad. D-squad is the General, the two girls, you, and Mr. Banghart. Mr. Banghart is nuts. C-squad is you and Mr. Banghart."
"Uh huh."
"A- and B-squads are a couple of other crews. They're out working another part of the farm about a mile from here."
"Sounds a little like the Army," Haley ventured.
Annie rose from the cot with effort, smoothed her apron, and walked over to Haley's side. "It's the only way to get a lick of work out of anyone, organization is, according to the General," she said. She looked at the picture that was absorbing most of his attention.
"The glass on it got cracked somehow," he said. "Maybe I could go into town and get another one. Do you suppose that would be possible?"
"Well, I don't know. You'll have to ask the General about that, too. He says you're going to be a pretty busy boy around here, and I imagine he'll want you to stick close to the farm for a while, anyway. Sometimes," she said bitterly, "the girls walk into town and leave me to make the beds, wash the dishes, and straighten up the house all by myself—like today. I suppose they could get you another glass, if you asked them, if they could leave off chasing boys long enough to do it." She studied the photograph. "Those your folks?"
"Yes, my mother and father," said Haley gravely. "This was taken when they were very young, of course. You can tell that by the way Mother's got her hair fixed. They somehow never had many pictures taken of themselves together. This is about the only one."
"They're both very nice looking," said Annie. She squinted so as to see the picture more sharply. "You'd never know that the General and your mother were brother and sister, except for maybe the lines around her eyes." She paused, and something like warmth came into her eyes for the first time since Haley had seen them. "Golly," she said, "I can imagine what you've been through. We lost our mother while the war was going on, you know, and I had to kind of try and take over. Believe me, I know how you feel, Haley."
Haley did not want to talk or think about it. He turned his back on her and busied himself with straightening the contents of his sock drawer.
"It's funny about relatives, isn't it?" mused Annie. "Here you are my first cousin, even if it is by adoption, and I never laid eyes on you before today, and the General's never seen you. I just wonder where Kitty and Hope and I'll be twenty years from today." She made clucking noises and shook her head slowly.
The sound of voices and the crunching of footfalls in the gravel driveway below brought Haley and Annie from their separate reveries.
"I'm good and sick of walking. You've got a license. Why don't you put your foot down and demand to use the car?" complained a girl's high, melodic voice.
"That's your cousin Hope," said Annie. "She's about your age."
"He'd re-enlist as a private first," said a second voice, with a gentle twang, pitched somewhat lower than the first. "If I got a speck of dust on it, I might as well stick my head in the oven and turn on the gas. Remember what he did to that poor pigeon?"
"That's your cousin Kitty," Annie explained. "She's a year older, and president of her sorority at the high school."
"You're going to have to do the dishes tonight. Roy is coming by for me at seven, dear," said Kitty's voice.
"Drop dead," said Hope.
"O.K., then let the mother hen do it again," said Kitty. The front door slammed, and the conversation stopped.
"I'm the mother hen," muttered Annie. "I have no doubt that they'll tell you a lot of kind things about me when my back is turned. They may not have been behind the door when God passed out the pretty faces, but Heaven only knows where they were when He divided up the gratitude."
Haley was embarrassed, not knowing what comment was expected of him. "I'm sure they're very nice," he said.
"You'll see, Haley; you'll see," said Annie with a crooked smile. She shuffled from the room to the head of the staircase and shouted down to Kitty and Hope. "You two girls get on your good behavior. Your cousin Haley's here a day early, and I want him to see what a fine, happy family he's getting into."
She returned to Haley's room, followed by Kitty, whose full hips swayed with studied grace as she crossed the bare floor to where Haley stood, his long fingers laced behind him, a fixed smile on his face.
"So this is Haley," Kitty exulted. Haley fidgeted under her warm, albeit vacant, gaze. Her face had much of the simple-naturedness of Annie's, but the setting of this attribute was altogether enchanting, he thought. One year his senior, she was fully a woman, and her lush maturity made Haley feel very young and frail indeed.
His awe must have shown, for Kitty crooned, "Aw, look at him, Annie. What's the matter, youngster? Afraid of girls, or don't you like it out here in God's country?"


On Sale
Oct 8, 2013
Page Count
176 pages
Hachette Books

Kurt Vonnegut

About the Author

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) is one of the most beloved American writers of the twentieth century. Vonnegut’s audience increased steadily since his first five pieces in the 1950s and grew from there. His 1968 novel Slaughterhouse-Five has become a canonic war novel with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 to form the truest and darkest of what came from World War II.

Vonnegut began his career as a science fiction writer, and his early novels–Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan–were categorized as such even as they appealed to an audience far beyond the reach of the category. In the 1960s, Vonnegut became closely associated with the Baby Boomer generation, a writer on that side, so to speak.

Now that Vonnegut’s work has been studied as a large body of work, it has been more deeply understood and unified. There is a consistency to his satirical insight, humor and anger which makes his work so synergistic. It seems clear that the more of Vonnegut’s work you read, the more it resonates and the more you wish to read. Scholars believe that Vonnegut’s reputation (like Mark Twain’s) will grow steadily through the decades as his work continues to increase in relevance and new connections are formed, new insights made.

Learn more about this author