Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
9/10, his trademark absurdist satire at its finest, or almost its finest.
I think every writer is tempted at one point or another to put himself (or herself) into his work. Once you reach a certain point in your writing career, you realize that this (a) has been done before; (b) is really hard to do well; (c) is fairly self-indulgent. Vonnegut, here, demonstrates a rare instance in which it is done well, and to excellent effect.
The nominal story of Breakfast of Champions is that of car salesman Dwayne Hoover, a recent widower who is afraid he is going insane, which is a perfectly reasonable fear, because he is. In this state, he meets science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, who gives him one of his books written as a letter from God to his only creation. Dwayne, in his insanity, takes the book as fact.
The story around the story is that of Vonnegut at his fiftieth birthday, remembering his father and looking at the world around him through his eyes and the eyes of his characters, bringing them together at the Midland Art Festival. He inserts himself as a character into the book, first as the narrator whose sardonic tone and opinion imbues every scene, and finally as an actual character in the narrative, seated in the cocktail lounge where Hoover and Trout have their fateful meeting.
There are several themes layered through “Breakfast of Champions,” which I am not going to be able to cover in one review after my first reading. Still: I had a discussion with a friend who felt that a major theme of the book was ethics in writing, how you have a responsibility around what you write and what people make of your work. I feel that’s one of the themes, but for me, the major theme was in ethics toward your fellow man. At one point in the book, Vonnegut says he has become tired of the tyranny of the author, focusing a narrative on one character and one setting, when all the world is just as important as that one character. To that end, he makes frequent use of the phrase “and so on,” to indicate that life in all of his scenes goes on after the narrative has turned its eye from them (a semantic and syntactic echo of “Slaughterhouse Five”‘s famous “So it goes”). He also talks about his characters and how although they are entirely his creations and do whatever he wants, when he is not paying attention to them, they do whatever they want.
This is all wrapped up in the question of whether human beings are completely free beings or just programmed machines. Vonnegut sidesteps the question; his message, finally, is that it doesn’t matter. Another friend, in talking about predestination vs. free will, gave me a quote that I want to reproduce here: “Just because God knows what you are going to pick doesn’t mean you don’t get to pick it.” Vonnegut’s message is the same, and in the end, he says, what matters is how we behave toward each other, in everyday interactions, in the ideas we write and spread. Everybody’s story is equally interesting; everybody’s decisions are equally weighted. Even to an author, every character is important.
The narrative actually hangs together well, building tension legitimately as Trout and Hoover make their way to the fateful cocktail lounge. Vonnegut tells us they meet and what happens, giving us just enough to make us anticipate the meeting. And after the meeting, he has brought himself into the narrative and revealed his own personal dilemma, so we follow him to see what he will do. His revelation, near the end of the book, is a wonderful moment in a book filled with amusing, touching, strange, and wonderful moments, and when you put it down, you will pause to take stock of it all before flipping back to a favorite passage. It will be hard to resist the temptation to read the book again, but whether you do or not, you will think about it in cocktail lounges, car dealerships, truck cabs, midwestern towns, art festivals, basement apartments in the Bahamas …
… and so on.