Breakfast of Champions

In an excellent article on Kurt Vonnegut last year, John Self described Breakfast of Champions as a transitional novel “where Vonnegut perfects his mid-to-late style of short paragraphs, avuncular wisdom and comical line drawings”. Rereading the novel (which I first read thirty years ago, twenty years after it was first published), I was astonished at how comforting that style was despite the fathomless despair which lies behind the humour. In his later novels, Vonnegut’s meandering style can give the impression he has lost control of the narrative, but here, despite numerous circumlocutions and interruptions, that is never the case. This is perhaps because the novel’s dynamics are outlined in its opening line:

“This is a tale of the meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”

The two men are car dealer Dwayne Hoover and science fiction author Kilgore Trout. Trout, the author of over 117 novels and 2,000 short stories, most of which were published in pornographic magazines, makes an appearance in many of Vonnegut’s novels, albeit with a lack of consistency that would bemuse even a scholar of the Marvel universe. He is sometimes seen as Vonnegut’s fictional alter ego, but Vonnegut himself will appear before the novel is finished:

“I was there to watch a confrontation between two human beings I had created: Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. I was not eager to be recognised.”

The story is not complicated. Dwayne, unbeknownst to those around him, is suffering from an unspecified mental illness:

“Dwayne Hoover’s body was manufacturing certain chemicals which unbalanced his mankind. But Dwayne, like all novice lunatics, needed some bad ideas too, so that his craziness could have shape and direction.”

These bad ideas will come unwittingly from Kilgore Trout in the form of his novel Now It Can Be Told which, in a letter written by the creator and addressed to the reader, will reveal that everyone else on Earth is a robot, built as part of an experiment to test the only creature with free will – taking this literally will lead Dwayne Hoover to believe he is the only real person and this realisation will cause Dwayne to commit a series of violent acts at the novel’s conclusion. Dwayne and Kilgore will meet because Trout has been invited to the inaugural Midland City Arts Festival at the request of another recurring Vonnegut character, Eliot Rosewater, who has loaned the festival a painting on the condition that his favourite author appear.

Before then, however, Vonnegut will delight in delivering his damning verdict on the United States of America, summing up its raison d’etre as follows:

“Everybody in America was supposed to grab whatever he could and hold onto it.”

It would be fair to say that Vonnegut has little time for the myths which support America’s sense of identity, beginning with its ‘discovery’:

“Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.”

Its history is general is condemned as largely fictional, as exemplified in the novel by the ‘Sacred Miracle Cave’, discovered after an earthquake on Dwayne’s  father’s farm, and now a tourist attraction founded on the story that it had been used by escaped slaves which, Vonnegut tells us, is “as fake as the one about Jesse James.” It is also threatened by the other great pillar of American identity, business, as it fills with “some sort of industrial waste which formed bubbles as tough as ping-pong balls.” Later Trout will dangle his feet in the local river only to find them immediately coated in a film of impossible to remove plastic.

Beyond its central narrative, the novel is decorated with delightful diversions, all of which add to Vonnegut’s portrait of his country. The title, he begins by telling us, is the property of a breakfast cereal, and its alternative title (Goodbye Blue Monday!) originates from a washing machine advert. As Trout travels to the festival, Vonnegut interjects pictures of the trucks and vans emblazoned with meaningless words he passes. He also adds the character of Wayne Hoobler, a faint echo of Dwayne Hoover, but with a very different life, having spent most of it in jail. He now hopes Dwayne can give him the opportunity he needs to turn his life around. Each of these contributes to the novel’s success and to Vonnegut’s excoriating critique of the USA, which rings as true fifty years on as it did then.


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5 Responses to “Breakfast of Champions”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    By coincidence, I have come across a book called How to hide an Empire, A Short History of the Greater United States. I’ve only read the first chapter, but it seems that the US is still lying to itself, the way Australia is lying to itself and maybe all countries lie about their history, their current enterprises and their worth to the planet.

    • 1streading Says:

      You’re right, all countries lie about their history, but when your history begins with genocide there must be a strong motivation to not face up to it. Vonnegut certainly has no time for that.

      • Lisa Hill Says:

        We in Australia have never been able to obscure our beginnings as a convict colony. But the US was a convict colony too, and they have nicely airbrushed that out of history too.

  2. bookbii Says:

    Glad to encounter another Self fan, he is the source of many of my purchases. I haven’t read Breakfast of Champions, based on your review I’ll have to check if it’s available at my library. It sounds brilliant, maybe not Vonnegut’s best but well worth the read. I do like his work, or what I’ve read of it so far anyway. Such a perceptive and fun writer.

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