There’s a Hole on the Side of the Book: Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions1

When I decide that I am going to read one of the “greats” (meaning critically famous authors), I typically side against reading his or her masterpiece first. My reading of Kurt Vonnegut is a prime example as to why. Breakfast of Champions is my second experience with Vonnegut, and thus, was destined to slightly (potentially greatly) disappoint me, even if it was fantastic. This is because I truly believe that Slaughterhouse-Five is the only perfect novel I’ve ever read. I think it’s perfectly paced, has perfect character development, perfectly succeeds in its goal of examining PTSD and the human condition, has perfect doses of sadness and humor, etc. The list could be a post by its lonesome. When Vonnegut, in the preface to Slaughterhouse-Five, writes that he has told his sons to not celebrate misfortune, no matter who it befalls, due to the way he had set up the line- he was visiting a war-time friend of his who also struggled with PTSD- I was immediately hooked on the novel.

Thus, no matter which Vonnegut novel I decided to read after Slaughterhouse-Five, there was almost no chance for me to not be disappointed by it. With Breakfast of Champions, it ended up taking about 120 pages or so for me to enjoy what I was reading. It was distinctly Vonnegutian, but the novel never really captured my attention like I was expecting it to. I read it because the character Kilgore Trout was the one in Slaughterhouse-Five that most captured my attention.

The plot is this: Kilgore Trout is writer who is only published in pornographic magazines, but is destined to become the greatest writer in history. There is a man in Midland City, West Virginia named Dwayne Hoover, who is on the verge of a mental breakdown, which Kilgore Trout is destined to cause. Dwayne Hoover is going to read a book by Kilgore Trout that will surmise that every human in the world except you, the reader, is in fact, a robot.

Vonnegut uses Breakfast of Champions to examine the idea of American idealism and the American Dream, as well as pointing the absurdity of day to day life. This ability of Vonnegut to write Kilgore Trout as a character who simply cuts to the heart of how ridiculous everyday happenings are is astounding. Trout hitchhikes his way across the country and his interactions with people who he has absolutely no interest in meeting are hilarious and memorable.

Perhaps my favorite parts of the book are Vonnegut’s theological commentary. It all seems mysteriously traditional until it takes a turn near the 200 page mark:

“What was the apple Adam and Eve ate? It was the Creator of the Universe.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Vonnegut does interesting things in the book, and it perhaps the most quotable book I have ever read, but in the end it really kind of falls flat for me. In recollection I have difficulty figuring out what the point of the book was, as it just seemed to drone on at times. It is not that the droning wasn’t interesting, it was that it was almost too preachy at times. It wasn’t that I agreed or disagreed with Vonnegut (most of the time I do agree with him) it was that he did a lot of telling and not showing. What makes Vonnegut great to me is when his characters become unique voices for his own philosophy. There were moments in which the book felt like an essay on select topics, and not a novel. The novel excels when it’s wide variety of characters all start to take shape and begin commenting.

“You know what truth is?” said Karabekian. “It’s some crazy thing my neighbor believes. If I want to make friends with him, I ask him what he believes. He tells me, and I say, ‘Yeah, yeah- ain’t it the truth?'”

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

The novel only gets better as it goes because it becomes less and less of Vonnegut telling you what is happening, and more of things happening and characters trying to force the absurdity of their own meaning.

“You are pooped and demoralized,” read Dwayne. “Why wouldn’t you be? Of course it is exhausting, having to reason all the time in a universe which wasn’t meant to reasonable.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

In the end, I liked it, but didn’t love it. It felt like rambling at moments, also feeling forced at others. Definitely a bit of a letdown after Slaughterhouse-Five.

Recommended to: Those looking for a simple read that deals with complicated themes, and Vonnegut-Completionists.

Avoid as if it were playing the Cubs with Jake Arrieta on the Mound at Wrigley: Those who don’t like books with non-linear narratives, and those who want books whose plot is not revealed within the first 20 pages of the narrative.

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