CW: Mental Illness, Suicide, Racism
Topic #9: Read a book you’ve read before
Book: Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
Publisher: Delacorte Press (1973)
“This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”
On the surface, Dwayne Hoover is the ideal American: he owns dozens of businesses in Midland City, Ohio, and is one of the city’s wealthiest residents. He is charming and personable, beloved by his employees, his girlfriend, and even perfect strangers. But underneath the surface, he is being torn apart by a psychosis that he keeps secret from everyone, no matter how much his hallucinations and delusions intensify or how lonely he becomes. Meanwhile, in a cramped Cohoes apartment, prolific and virtually-unknown science fiction writer Kilgore Trout is preparing to leave for the Midland City Festival of the Arts, which he has been invited to more or less by accident. Embittered by years of economic failure and the terror of approaching old age, Trout plans to deliberately embarrass himself at the festival in the hopes of proving, once and for all, that the arts are worthless. In just a few dozen hours, these two strangers will meet and the resulting explosion of senseless violence will change both of their lives–and the world itself–forever.
Those who have read our self-introductions will probably remember me listing Breakfast of Champions as my favorite book. Upon rereading it, my feelings haven’t changed, although Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is always in position to edge it out. I felt taking a critical eye to a book I love would be a good exercise in objectivity.
Although Kilgore and Dwayne are the two most obvious focal points, Breakfast of Champions is primarily a portrait of a United States torn apart by apathy and starved of spiritual meaning. Dozens of other characters, most burdened by loneliness, personal catastrophe or the trials of a racist society, weave in and out of the story, connected to one another in a maze of seemingly meaningless coincidence. Most of the characters have little connection to the story itself, but Vonnegut rejects the notion–at one point, explicitly in narration–that a story should have leading characters and supporting characters, since life itself doesn’t. He peppers the story further with tangents about the United States and its history, written as though about a distant and exotic land, full of unnecessary hardship and slowly destroying itself from the inside with pollution, violence and spiritually-empty capitalism. One gets the sense of a circle of hell where millions of destitute people struggle to make it big while those who already have, like Dwayne Hoover, find nothing but emptiness in their wealth and status.
Regardless of whatever Vonnegut’s goals may have been, this book would be a forgettable mess if it didn’t have Dwayne and Kilgore to center it. Kilgore Trout in particular, is Vonnegut’s best-remembered character for a reason. With his dry humor, unbridled bitterness and self-hatred with an intensity bordering on self-righteousness, Trout’s blunt manner has a way of stealing any scene he’s a part of. On the other hand, Dwayne Hoover, in spite of his alleged charisma, controls scenes not with his personality, but by provoking our sympathy as he suffers through his illness in secrecy. He also carries a burden of grief: a wife he lost to suicide, her death casting a shadow over everything he does.
Despite the heavy subject, I actually adore this book for its somewhat incongruous sense of fun. Between the narrator’s deadpan humor, frequent tangents about several of Kilgore Trout’s high concept science-fiction novels, and a series of Vonnegut’s doodles depicting objects and symbols that appear in the text, Breakfast of Champions is a quick read without a dull moment. The myriad connections between the random inhabitants of Midland City engage the reader in an endless game of comparison, looking for meaning in coincidences that might be no more important than they appear. And although I can’t explain too much, two thirds of the way through, Vonnegut delivers his masterstroke, the book gaining a metafictional edge that gives the whole story much more thematic power and is a source of some of the funniest jokes the author has ever told.
Is Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut’s best book? No, definitely not. Slaughterhouse Five, at least, is a stronger book overall, and possibly Bluebeard too. But Breakfast of Champions is certainly my personal favorite, in large part because of the material it tackles. Ultimately, this book comes off like a conversation that Vonnegut is having with himself, pulling his characters’ strings as they act out a drama that will reveal the truth about the value of art. Does art really have the power to change the world? And if so, how do we use it safely? I’d like to think that Breakfast of Champions is a pretty good start.
PS: A few things need to be explained about this book for moral, rather than artistic, reasons. Despite Vonnegut’s attempts at being progressive, the forty-four years since initial publication have not always been kind to this book. For instance, “chinaman” is a word that has aged very poorly, and was not much good to start with. More prominently, Vonnegut uses the “n-word” extensively throughout the text. I would argue that the slur is mindfully used as a symbol of the bigotry eating the country from the inside, but for many modern readers, that excuse isn’t nearly enough. Lastly, Vonnegut’s portrayal of Dwayne’s illness as being, on some metaphorical level at least, an extension of the spiritual sickness that affects the whole country is not the finest moment in the history of disability representation, although for what it’s worth, I know Vonnegut was trying his best. This book comes off as an attempt to understand what Mark, his schizophrenic son who was hospitalized around the time this book was written, was going through, and I’m always inclined to be lenient to someone who is honestly trying to understand more.