KURT VONNEGUT threw in the towel a few years back with the publication of Timequake. The tone of this novel was one of senescence and loss, sprinkled here and there with a melancholic amusement over the unpredictable tragicomedy of life. It was the meandering coda of a veteran cynic making his final exit, stage left. This would, by his own admission, be Vonnegut's last original work.

Well, sort of. Peter Reed, a Professor of English at the University of Minnesota, has made it his business, with Vonnegut's kind permission, to bring out this batch of Vonnegut's earliest efforts. "Otherwise," Vonnegut says in his introduction, "they might never have seen the light of day again. I myself hadn't saved one scrap of paper from that part of my life. I didn't think I would amount to a hill of beans."

The stories (or "Buddhist catnaps," as Vonnegut calls them, all written during "the golden age of magazine fiction") collected in Bagombo Snuff Box are just as innocent and clumsy as Vonnegut purports in his introduction. They are quaint artifacts of post-World War II Americana, skewered by Vonnegut's neophyte stabs at satire and his eye for the cosmically absurd. Stories such as "Hal Irwin's Magic Lamp" and "Poor Little Rich Town" exhibit a bittersweet skepticism toward such positivistic ideals as "economic prosperity" and "technological progress"; the weaker stories are derivative and corny. The collection as a whole is marked by a teasing hopefulness which would become increasingly rare in Vonnegut's later novels, especially Breakfast of Champions.

"Thanks to popular magazines," Vonnegut explains in the book's afterward, "I learned on the job to be a fiction writer." The painstaking process of such public apprenticeship is much in evidence in Bagombo Snuff Box: Vonnegut tiptoes forth with tentative experimentalism, often tripping on a patch of klutzy or overly impish dialogue, or boxing himself in with an unsophisticated cardboard characterization; and then, every once in a while, there's that too-nifty twist of fate you can smell coming a mile off. Most of the stories, though, are ruggedly intelligent and consistently funny. Reading them, you're allowed to witness Vonnegut's slow, unsteady birth as an artist. Needless to say, the value you assign to such naked spectacle -- what it means to you -- will depend entirely on how you feel about Vonnegut as a writer.

So I might as well tell you how I feel about the subject, and thereby dispense with any further pretense to critical discernment and all that other stuff: I love Kurt Vonnegut. I think he's the cat's meow -- the most cannily moral of self-deprecating American moralists, a deceptively brilliant prose stylist, and an honest-to-goodness, stand-out humanist in an inhumane age. If they published Vonnegut's grocery list from yesterday morning, I'd drop everything and read it, twice. He's my hero, and I'll probably cry like a baby when he dies.

Reading Bagombo Snuff Box made me very sad. This sadness had nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the book, which was pretty much what I expected it to be, having read Welcome to the Monkey House countless times. There is surely nothing intrinsic to the work to suggest its pervading atmosphere of loss, its prematurely posthumous feel. How could there be? These stories are as bright and fresh as Vonnegut is now, at century's end, impossibly old and tired.

The reason for this sadness -- which, as I read the book, had me pacing myself like a long-distance runner calibrating breath and pulse -- was the page-by-page realization that I was reaching the end of a very long, complicated, and involved affair. (All lovelorn bookworms have at least one or two of these totally unrequited and entirely fulfilling affairs in their lives.) As I irresistibly, irreversibly neared the end of Bagombo Snuff Box, I sensed myself drawing ever closer to the terminus of a personal territory -- an invaluable territory of discovery, defined and limited only by the mortality of its singular creator. Turn that last page, and bang! -- no more new Vonnegut books to wait for, hope for, pine for. The oeuvre is now complete, ready for discussion. Its parameters are defined. From here on out, I can only partake of that sentimental backtracking across grounds nearly as familiar as the inside of my own head.

I'm terrible with goodbyes, however hazily symbolic they may be. Maybe it's best to let Vonnegut tell his own farewell, with this last paragraph yanked from the story "2BR02B." It proves an ironically suitable epitaph to the man's life work: "'Thank you, sir,' said the hostess. 'Your city thanks you, your country thanks you, your planet thanks you. But the deepest thanks of all is from future generations.'"

Vonnegut reads Wed 9/22 at Town Hall Seattle, Eighth & Seneca, 624-6600, 7:30 p.m., $5 (tickets at Elliott Bay Books).

Support The Stranger