This must be the fourth or fifth time I have read Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. – I had first read it in the late 1970s, and have always considered it as a ‘classic’ that needs to be read again and again.
It is difficult to categorize this book, but here are the categories that it may fit in: fiction, biting satire, black humor, science fiction/ fantasy, and serious literature. The fact that the book has alternate titles may provide a hint on the unpredictability, and difficulty at slotting the book.
|Title||Breakfast of Champions or
Goodbye Blue Monday
|Initially Published In||1973|
|Formats Available||Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle|
“Marvelous . . . [Vonnegut] wheels out all the complaints about America and makes them seem fresh, funny, outrageous, hateful and lovable.”
—The New York Times
It is the story of “two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”
Dwayne Hoover, is a charming, rich man – he runs a Pontiac dealership, owns land and is franchisee for many chains (like the Holiday Inn) in and around Midland City. Dwayne’s mind is disintegrating because of bad chemicals that his body is producing. However, no one appears to recognize the signs of his mental disturbances.
Kilgore Trout is a relatively sane, unknown science fiction writer living in another part of the US. He has written many novels and short stories in the sci-fi genre. His work is published as filler material in pronographic publications, often with the titles of his stories changed. He does not earn any money from his writing, and installs aluminium sidings in buildings for a living.
Midland City is hosting some kind of fine arts festival at the Holiday Inn, and Kilgore Trout is invited to be an honoured participant in the festival (because one of the funders of the festival has read his science fiction and believes that Kilgore Trout is the greatest living author in America). Trout undertakes his ardous journey to Midland City – he hitchhikes, gets mugged, and gets arrested on the way.
When Trout finally arrives in Midland City he hands over a copy of one of his science fiction novels to Dwayne. In his crazed state, Dwayne is influenced by the novel and believes that everyone other than Dwayne is a robot. Dwayne goes on a violent rampage, beating and injuring around a dozen people including his son, his mistress, and Trout.
The Narration / Style
The book is a well-crafted satire, with commentary on war, population, sex, racism, success, wealth, manufacturing, industrialization, politics, and pollution in the world in general and America in particular.
The end of the story is revealed right at the very early stages. The narration keeps moving back-and-forth in time. For example, right at the start, we are warned that Hoover will eventually go berserk and hurt a lot of people. We are also told that Hoover and Trout will meet eventually, though they are worlds apart in all senses.
The beauty of the narration is more in the tangents and digressions. The summary plots of a lot of science fiction stories (attributed to Kilgore Trout) are narrated to us. Words like beaver, apple, dinosaur, and truck are accompanied by simple illustrations. Unrelated sub-plots crop up throughout the book.
Each diversion and illustration is more delightful than the previous one. Throughout the book, Vonnegut highlights the absurdity of the human condition, with a high focus on the ridiculous aspects of society. Though the sarcasm is biting, one is not left feeling down at the end of the book.
The print format of the book uses big letters and a lot of spacing between the lines. Also, there are plenty of simple illustrations. The words and the sentences used are extremely easy to read and understand. If you glance at the cover and just quickly flip through the pages, it may seem like a book for kids. However, every simple sentence made me think or laugh, and so did every infantile illustration.
The author inserts himself as a character in the book towards the end, first as an observer and then as an active participant who gets attacked by one his creations. He then sets another of his characters (Kilgore Trout) ‘free’. We are informed that Trout goes on to win a Noble prize eventually (after the story).
Some Sketches from the Book
The book is full of hand-drawn illustrations sprinkled all over. Taken separately, they may seem infantile and unnecessary, simplistic, inane, and banal. And yet, in this book I found them delightful, surprising and apt – merging with the rest of the style.
Some Quotes from the Book
Here are some quotes from the book (if I had reproduced every quote that I liked, I may have reproduced most of the book):
- “Charm was a scheme for making strangers like and trust a person immediately, no matter what the charmer had in mind.”
- “I pity you. You’ve crawled up your own asshole and died.”
- “There is no order in the world around us, we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.”
- “Earthlings went on being friendly, when they should have been thinking instead.”
- “He was a graduate of West Point, which is the military academy that turns young men into homicidal maniacs for use in war.”
- “The planet was being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what was being manufactured was lousy, by and large.”
- “Of course it is exhausting, having to reason all the time in a universe which wasn’t meant to be reasonable.”
- “Almost all messages which were sent and received in his country, even the telepathic ones, had to do with buying and selling of some damn thing.”
- “He couldn’t tell the difference between one politician and another. They were all formlessly enthusiastic chimpanzees to him.”
- “He felt guilty about that, even though he knew he had done nothing he should feel guilty about.”
- “… short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.”
- “Vietnam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.”
A ‘Must Read’
The book is around 300 pages; the print / font size is big with lots of spaces, and many illustrations. Even this being the fifth read, it was un-put-down-able for me. And, I had to stop myself from automatically reading it a sixth time.
A brilliant book. Worth reading. Time and again.
Breakfast of Champions was on the New Times bestseller list for over 50 weeks!
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born in 1922 in Indiana (US). He died in 2007 at the age of 84. He joined Cornell University and later participated as a soldier in the World War – II. In his writing career, Vonnegut published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction. His most famous and enduring novels are The Sirens of Titan (1959), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Cat’s Cradle (1963), Breakfast of Champions (1973).
Vonnegut was an icon to several generations of young Americans who rushed to read everything he published.
— Norman Mailer, author
I liked him for world-weary gentleness, warmth, and comedy. And he was pretty darned imaginative, too, which is never a fault in my world.
— Rick Moody, author of The Ice Storm
The author himself gave a ‘C’ grade to Breakfast of Champions :-).
Here is a link to an interview with Kurt Vonnegut Jr., years before he died.
More on the Book
You can also listen to this live reading (recorded in the 1970s) of a part of the book by Kurt Vonnegut (the author) (uploaded on youtube):
Breakfast of Champions was made into a movie in 1999, starring Bruce Willis (Dwayne Hoover) and Albert Finney (Kilgore Trout) – but it failed to impress the critics and did not stir the box office. Personally, I don’t think that this book can be converted into a good movie – it will be nightmarish kind of storytelling with weird visual effects.
Your comments are welcome!