By: Colin Cahill
A satire of America, a satire of humanity itself, Breakfast of Champions begins with a variety of anecdotes and descriptions that seem nonsensical and irrelevant to the passive reader, but they encapsulate the search for the meaning of life that leads on the main characters throughout the novel while also instating some of Kurt Vonnegut’s own personal beliefs (e.g., anti-war sentiments, pro-music, etc.). The story covers the events surrounding the encounter between a science fiction writer who is a nobody (Kilgore Trout) and a neurotic car dealership owner (Dwayne Hoover). Despite his lack of publicity, Kilgore receives an invitation to be a speaker at an arts festival in Midland City—coincidentally being Dwayne Hoover’s whereabouts. Though looking forward to the occasion, Kilgore wonders why someone (that being the supposed millionaire who invited him) would be interested in an artist who searches for the truth but has found nothing, a prophet with no prophecy, and thus begins the development of the theme of existentialism. Meanwhile, Dwayne Hoover progressively descends into insanity through the “bad chemicals” in his head (Vonnegut 14), a process that is catalyzed by his wife’s suicide and his son’s supposed homosexuality. He exhibits symptoms of this broad condition through manic happiness, spontaneous singing, hallucinations, and compulsive repetition of others’ words. As the novel progresses and as Kilgore gets closer to Midland City, Dwayne’s condition continues to worsen—as if Kilgore’s proximity is the cause—until he finally reaches the point of no return.
After a brief encounter with him, Dwayne snatches a copy of Kilgore’s Now It Can Be Told. A story about the “Creator of the Universe” telling one man that he is the only one with free will leaving all else to be robots, Kilgore’s novel tips Dwayne over the cliff’s edge into the belief that he is that man. He takes this fiction as an explanation for all of the tragedies that have befallen him throughout his life, and consequently, he accepts that everything in his life outside himself has simply been programmed to be that way. “Bad chemicals and bad ideas were the Yin and Yang of madness” (Vonnegut 14). In a manic episode, he accepts that his wife killed herself, he decides to beat his son senseless along with others, and he even bites off Kilgore’s fingertips (a symbol of Kilgore as a creator). As a result, Dwayne is sent away to a mental institution while Kilgore is left scarred both physically and mentally. At the end, one more trick is pulled from Vonnegut’s sleeve when none other than he himself makes his presence known to Kilgore. After stating that he is his creator (both as the author of the book and in that way a god) and that Kilgore is now free from his puppet strings, Vonnegut simply drives away leaving Kilgore in utter disbelief and awe.
The manifestation of Dwayne Hoover’s peak insanity was as a result of the bad ideas at Kilgore’s fingertips, and the apparent horror brought about in Kilgore Trout was bestowed upon him through Vonnegut’s revealing words. The pursuit of truth-seeking, especially when relating to life itself, is not only pointless but unhealthy, and trying to do so by imitating a main character in a fictional book (one of the key elements of this anti-American satire) goes beyond that. As Vonnegut explains in his pedagogical philosophy at the beginning of the novel, life is full of nonsense and garbage just like that of which he admits to be in his own head. Racism developing simply through color of skin, exploitation of both the impoverished and minorities, nobody batting an eye towards the destruction of the planet, and society not taking responsibility for causing mental illness are all examples of absurdities in our world that are addressed in the preface to this book and themes that serve as its backbone. Considering the magnitude of nonsense from an external perspective and the quantity of it, it’s best not to try and make sense of it or tie it all together because doing so would drive one to either a point of insanity (in the case of Dwayne) or petrification (in the case of Kilgore).
When considering the time period—published in 1973—there is no question as to why this novel was banned. Kurt Vonnegut was considered to be a part of the counterculture movement—a movement that went against social, political, and economic beliefs at the time and was backed by various sub-movements including anti-war (against both World War II and the Vietnam War) (Rosewall 1). Furthermore, anti-war sentiments (expressed throughout most of Vonnegut’s work) during this time were often deemed to be anti-American, and considering what was anti-American at the time, the Soviet Union, this was not necessarily a positive label. With all of the revolutionary ideas brought up in the counterculture movement and what some considered to be obscene, households and schools had no hesitation in suppressing these ideologies. So consequently, Breakfast of Champions was thrown into that censorship fire as well; it received no awards and was constantly scorned and regarded as nonsense though that was the point of the book. Even as late as 1995, it was still challenged in Monmouth School District, Illinois for being “pornographic trash” (Banned Library) despite the narrative’s relevance to the rapidly changing world, especially when nearing the turn of the century. Serving as a criticism of America itself in all of its worldly corruption and pluralistic ignorance, this novel has the potential to be a foothold for revisions in our hierarchy of priorities and methods of continuing to live on this planet, but the continual banning and challenging of it prevents its permeation.
About the Author
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was an American war veteran and author of 14 novels over the course of 50 years. Beginning his pursuit of writing in his high school’s newspaper, he went on to study at Cornell where he was the managing editor of the student paper. Though not necessarily studying to become a writer (rather chemistry), he did learn a few things with regards to journalism that he took with him throughout the rest of his career: “get the facts right, compose straightforward declarative sentences, know the audience” (Allen). After the war and being a POW in Dresden (the leading inspiration for his best-selling novel Slaughterhouse-Five), Vonnegut became a full-fledged writer and a partisan of concepts including anti-war, atheism, and counterculture in general. Over his extensive career, he has been the recipient of awards including the 1986 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Galapagos (second place), the 2019 Prometheus Awards for Harrison Bergeron (first place), the 1973 Seiun Awards for The Sirens of Titan (first place), and many more (Kelly). Sadly, Kurt Vonnegut is no longer alive today (“so it goes”) to see the increasing appreciation of his writing despite those who still ban it, but his incredible works of fiction (borderline autobiographical at times) will hopefully continue to live on as years go by.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Awards
Kurt Vonnegut Interview on His Life and Career
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields
Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut