Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children's Crusade, is the story of Billy Pilgrim, his journey through time and his experiences during the firebombing of Dresden during World War II.
Billy Pilgrim has become "unstuck in time," meaning he travels to different points in his life periodically, and has the ability to see events both past and future. He knows the date of his eventual death and how it will happen, but seems largely unconcerned. He knows everything that has happened or will happen, but has also succumbed to the idea that there is nothing he can do about any of it.
As Billy travels through time, it gives the reader insight into how he became the person he has, by visiting important events in his life, from childhood to his end. But every visit Billy makes to other points in his life is juxtaposed with his experiences as a prisoner of war during the firebombing of Dresden.
Vonnegut uses a, for lack of a better word, more simple prose, making the story a very easy read, or rather a very quick read. In a way I find the style similar to Hemingway. Direct and to the point, more concerned with the story than with detailed descriptions like you might find in, say, Infinite Jest. Some have argued this was in an effort to reach a larger audience. I would argue it just makes for a more entertaining read.
While it may be more relaxed, that isn't to say it's a simple book meant for simple minds. Oft-described as anti-war, Slaughterhouse-Five gets its message across by simply describing the horrors that occurred, not only in Dresden but also in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Coventry. The massive loss of life as man hunts other men.
Much of the book could be described as autobiographical, as Vonnegut himself was a prisoner of war in Dresden, and witnessed first hand the loss of life and the destruction man can reign down upon the earth. It's hard to believe something like that couldn't have any effect on somebody. And while many have described this book as sci-fi, I wouldn't. While there is time-travel, aliens and UFOs, this isn't what the book is about. It's about a man who's sort of lost his marbles, no doubt a result of his experiences in the war.
As we slowly pass through the different parts of Billy's life, his professional and social successes, we see that he is never really happy. But at the same time he never seems too down either. More in a state of neutral acceptance. Let the chips fall where they may. He does suffer through spurts of uncontrollable crying, but it doesn't really seem to bother him. Nor does knowing when he will die. But I guess if you see death enough, you come to fear it a little less.
As an aside, there was one scene that mentioned a "Reagan for President" bumper sticker. I'm curious to know if Vonnegut meant that as a way of showing how crazy some people were, or if it was merely a mention of a popular sentiment in the late 60's. Either way, I found it interesting to read in a book that was published 12 years before Reagan became President.
You can read TIME's original review from April 11, 1969, right here.
I'm going to read The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West. It looks like quite a quick read, so after I've finished that, I think I might tackle Gone with the Wind, which would be only my second 'thousand pager.'