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By Michael Malone
Kurt Vonnegut is an unassailable American cultural hero. There’s Slaughterhouse-Five, about Billy Pilgrim traveling through time, and the firebombing of Dresden. There’s Galapagos, about apocalypse survivors in the Galapagos Islands who start a new human race. There’s Player Piano, about a man trying to survive in a world increasingly dominated by machines.
There are a dozen other novels, including a bunch I never heard of, such as Between Time and Timbuktu and Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons.
And there’s Breakfast of Champions, which happened to be sitting on my bookshelf, old and weathered, with a ‘$1.50’ sticker in the top right cover, heretofore unread. So I picked up Vonnegut’s eighth novel, and began reading.
Breakfast tells the tale of Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy Pontiac dealer with some serious psychological issues. “Hoover was on the brink of going insane,” it says on the first page. The two-hander also tells of Kilgore Trout, a sci-fi author with scads of peculiar books to his name, including Plague on Wheels and Now It Can Be Told, none of them making much of an impact on society.
Despite his janky literary output, Trout is invited to speak at an arts festival in Hoover’s hometown, out in the Midwest, and the author makes his way there, with a stop in Manhattan, and a hitchhike out of New York in a truck hauling thousands of pounds of olives.
Other authors would have Trout picked up by a guy in a four-door Buick sedan. When it’s Vonnegut, it’s the truck hauling tons of olives.
Trout arrives at the festival, and he and Hoover eventually interface. Both are “lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast,” Vonnegut writes in the novel’s opening sentence. Hoover is a widower, his wife dying by suicide involving Drano. “Celia became a small volcano, since she was composed of the same sorts of substances which commonly clogged drains,” the book explains.
Vonnegut’s own mother committed suicide too.
Throughout the book, Hoover is becoming unspooled, a victim of “bad chemicals” coursing through his body. “Dwayne certainly wasn’t alone, as far as having bad chemicals inside of him was concerned,” the book reads. “He had plenty of company throughout all history. In his own lifetime, for instance, the people in a country called Germany were so full of bad chemicals for a while that they actually built factories whose only purpose was to kill people by the millions.”
Breakfast of Champions is a darkly comic novel. The New York Times said Vonnegut “performs considerable complex magic. He makes pornography seem like any old plumbing, violence like lovemaking, innocence like evil, and guilt like child’s play. He wheels out all the latest fashionable complaints about America–her racism, her gift for destroying language, her technological greed and selfishness–and makes them seem fresh, funny, outrageous, hateful, and lovable, all at the same time.”
I did not find the novel all that funny. Hoover and Trout are two-dimensional constructs for the page, not full-blooded characters that the reader develops any sort of attachment to. They are weird for the sake of being weird, not because their quirks enrich the story or move it along.
Breakfast of Champions is flat-out weird. Throughout the book, Vonnegut mentions something, be it Drano or a cow or a body bag, then in plainspoken English sprinkled with sarcasm, defines just what the thing is. Even if you already know what Drano, or a cow, or a body bag is. The body bag, for one, is “a large plastic envelope for a freshly killed American soldier.” Thanksgiving is “a holiday when everybody in the country was expected to express gratitude to the Creator of the Universe, mainly for food.”
Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis, and takes a number of shots at the Midwest, describing it as flat and dull and full of highways and chain stores. He has some barbs for the greater U.S. too, touching on wealth distribution, racism and what he deems to be our proclivity for jumping into wars.
Speaking of racism, the narrator drops lots of n-words. Here in 2023, a lively debate is ongoing as to whether the risque bits in classic novels–Breakfast came out in 1973–should be cleaned up. I’m not exactly sure where I stand on that issue, but the many n-words in Breakfast do not make the book better.
One thing I did like about Breakfast of Champions–Vonnegut provides illustrations. A lot of them–an anti-war T-shirt, a beaver, a gun, a light switch and many other things you might find laying around the house. They’re crude. They’re quirky. And they’re funny, because Vonnegut drew them.
Vonnegut also pops up as a character in the book, as the author tears down the proverbial fourth wall. “This is a very bad book you’re writing,” the Vonnegut character tells himself.
I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I didn’t get much out of Breakfast of Champions. You, on the other hand, might. Even if you don’t, at a wispy 295 pages, you won’t spend a lot of time consuming it.
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