Breakfast of Champions
-What Is It?-
Breakfast of Champions is a 1973 novel written and partially illustrated by Kurt Vonnegut. It is centered mainly in the abject and plain Midwestern town of Midland, and follows the exploits of a variety of characters, with the most notable—or at least stylistically influential and interesting—being Kilgore Trout, a dirt-poor and unsuccessful science fiction writer. The book follows Trout and other characters through disjointed and scantily-sketched scenes as they discuss everything from football to the rights of miners.
-Why Should You Care?-
While that sparse introduction and summary may not make this statement ring with any veracity, Breakfast of Champions is one of my favorite books. Looking back on it, there’s certainly a nostalgia for the time in my life I read it just a couple years ago; but alongside that, I was genuinely surprised and happier than I thought I’d be to encounter Kurt Vonnegut again. I’d read a short story from him in high school, but that’s all our acquaintance had really amounted to up until I read Breakfast of Champions.
Now, I actually haven’t read this book since I picked it up the first time—hence the skeleton quality of this recommendation. But I saw it lying on my desk and I wanted to at least get something down and out about it, in some way.
And after going back through the book briefly, there are three quotes I’d like to highlight specifically. I will list them below, and then provide context and thoughts for each.
Here they are:
“The rights of the people on top of the ground don’t amount to nothing compared to the rights of the man who owns what’s underneath.” (Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut, pg. 126).
This passage deals with Kilgore Trout talking to an old miner who’s giving him a lift. The miner, a tired and thoughtful, if at times short, man laments how the company he worked for could tear through houses, farms, and fields all across the local county because they technically owned all the land in the area. It didn’t matter what was on top of the land—whoever owned what was underneath was king.
“The ordinance was junked later on to allow radio towers to go up.” (Vonnegut, pg. 140).
This is the ending quote to a passage describing a small American town’s reverence for a seventeen year-old high school football player George Hickman Bannister, who was killed during a Thanksgiving football game. To honor his memory, the town built a big sixty-two-foot stone obelisk with a marble football on top. They even passed a law, the George Hickman Bannister Law, commemorating George and making it illegal for anything taller to be put up in town.
The above quote is the last line in the section talking specifically about George Bannister and the honor given to him by the town.
“As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books…. Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as the other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.
If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.
It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.” (Vonnegut, 209 – 210).
Like countless writers before him, Vonnegut no doubt has many, many sections, lines, sentences, and bits and pieces of his books that could be named as his “definitive” sections. Not all of them life or work-defining necessarily, but most of them rather the moments in his writing where he really, honestly expressed himself, mask-off, and what he thought. For a man who could be as cynical and sarcastic as Vonnegut, even the tone or authenticity of the highest of those “honest” sections could be called into question. But there are some, like the one above, I genuinely believe speak for themselves, and help lend a small window, an idea, into why Vonnegut wrote and what was—if it could ever be fathomed or deduced—in some small part a tiny core piece of his writing.
What I find important and also so engaging about the book, and Kurt Vonnegut as a whole, is how disjointed everything is. Vonnegut’s books read something more like half-finished long-form essays with small pockets of narrative development and explanation, all mixed together in the rough shape of a book. This makes them, in my opinion, at the very least interesting—though certainly not always palatable—to read. They become pretty nimble little works that are able to discuss in a point-blank and naked fashion a whole carousel of ideas and thoughts in quick succession.
His style does have its detracting qualities. It’s what could be called “postmodern” through-and-through, though I’d personally rather just call it dry and mostly cynical, with occasional buoys of sentiment floating through. There’s a moroseness to the detachment, and it means that Vonnegut’s books and characters can oftentimes end up feeling more like rough agglomerations of thought and impulse, crude sketches—in every sense of each word—rather than anything actual or real. To a degree, this crudeness and unreality seems to be the point of Vonnegut’s work, and it’s a point well-taken… though, in this author’s opinion, it could also have been, in some small ways, a point better made.
This does not, at all, take away from his work and what it means, at least not in a capacity that is significantly damaging, in my opinion. Vonnegut is a singularly American writer, and his voice can be felt in quite a few of his contemporaries, and many of those who followed after clearly trace his footsteps, in some way or another, with their own. And despite his arid wit, compulsive detachment, and spooling sort of cynicism, there is a heart I believe underneath all of it. A very tender, beating heart that felt for the time it was in and the people it saw suffering. Vonnegut’s characters are never too smart, nor are they too stupid. They are never really satires, or tragedies, or heroes, or villains. Rather, they are people, of some kind or another, who are moving through the worlds of his books much in the same way we move through our own. They are confused, more often than not. Funny, though they don’t in the moment understand why, and may perhaps never be able to. More than anything, they are simple, and honest in many different, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes affirming, sometimes purely alienating, ways. How much of this was on purpose, and how much of it was on accident, will be, as with any work of art, always a question left behind and unanswered. At least by the artist himself.
I do believe, in some way, Vonnegut succeeded in giving “equal weightiness” to all he wrote. Is it always successful? No. But it was never really meant to all be. And that’s what makes Kurt Vonnegut worth reading.