By Chet Yarbrough
Breakfast of Champions
Written by: Kurt Vonnegut
Narration by: John Malkovich
“Breakfast of Champions” is an underestimated imaginative masterpiece. The underestimation is realized by listening to John Malkovich’s descriptive narration. The author, Kurt Vonnegut, offers a fascinating glimpse of a mind teetering on, and then falling over the edge of reality into insanity. One might classify “Breakfast of Champions” as only a surreal satire but that diminishes its insight to insanity.
There are no heroes in “Breakfast of Champions”. Vonnegut clearly satirizes the maladies of the American twentieth century but he concretely reveals how wealth, poverty, and escapism grind people down and compel abhorrent, often violent, and insane acts. He exposes the American dream’s illusion of happiness. There are three main characters. There is the teller of the tale, Kilgore Trout, and Dwayne Hoover.
The teller of the tale is not revealed until the last chapters of the book. It is the Creator of humankind. The Creator is a tinkerer who creates machines that are more commonly known as human beings. These human beings are set in motion, endowed with consciousness, and no longer controlled by the Creator. They are machines that follow the laws of physics and are self-sustaining, reincarnating machines that live forever without recollection of past lives.
Kilgore Trout is a science fiction writer who is invited by an admirer of his books to receive an award, in a coal mining town, for his pornographic science fiction stories. The award is for the greatest writer of all time. Trout is at first reluctant to take the trip to the coal mining town but succumbs to acclaim for his fame and begins hitchhiking across the country to receive the award.
Dwayne Hoover is one of the richest men in the coal mining town from which Trout is receiving the award. Hoover is an auto dealer. He is the best employer, with the best employment package (including an excellent employee health plan) of any business in town. The primary employer in town is a coal producer. The coal company is an environmental polluter, low wage provider, and a big cause of citizen illness in the town.
Trout and Hoover may or may not know each other but the Creator knows what is going to happen in the town when Trout arrives. In Trout’s hitchhiking progress he meets fellow machines (people)who are coping with life. Their stories are of middle class living that remind reader/listeners of the passions, weaknesses, and desires of all human beings. While Trout talks with people on his journey, the Creator notes the backgrounds of people who live in the coal mining town. There is Hoover’s “girl Friday”, the homosexual & transsexual piano player, and an artist who is recently awarded $5,000 for a painting. Each machine (person) plays a role in a developing crisis that approaches at the speed of Trout’s hitchhiking progress.
A reader/listener knows bad things are going to happen as the story progresses. Hoover is swallowing what the Creator calls “bad chemicals”. At one point Hoover cannot speak except to repeat one word of a sentence said to him by another. Hoover crosses the street while hallucinating at each step. He feels, with each step, he sinks to his knees as though stepping on a sponge. Hoover returns to his office, calls his girl Friday, and says he needs her to come with him to a local motel room to relieve a persistent erection. Both Hoover and his girl Friday have lost their spouses; i.e. Hoover’s wife by suicide; girl Friday’s by war. They have been lovers for some time. They go to the motel, have sex, and begin to argue. Hoover believes she is asking him to buy a chicken franchise for her. He estimates the cost to be at least $100,000.
Hoover continues taking bad chemicals. The Creator arrives at a bar in town. Trout arrives at the bar. The piano player is playing in the bar. It is somewhat unclear but Hoover shoots the piano player in the back of the head, and bludgeons his girl Friday. Trout tries to stop the beating of the girl. The tip of Trout’s finger is bitten off by Hoover. Hoover is arrested. The piano player is dead. Girl Friday is concussed, and Trout has his hand wrapped in a bloody handkerchief. Hoover is in handcuffs; girl Friday, the dead piano player, and Trout are on their way to the hospital.
Vonnegut seems to be explaining that money is not happiness. Human beings have free will to be good, bad, morally upright, or insanely brutal. Having a job that barely offers the basic necessities of life only reinforces machine-like living. Destruction of the environment diminishes those who work for dirty industries and those ancillary businesses that suck off polluter’s productivity. Drugs are a way of escaping reality but they have consequences. Some machines (people) fall off the edge of sanity, become violent, and sometimes murder innocent bystanders.
This is not only a story of the 1970s. It is the story of today with school shootings, postal syndrome killings, and the rise of violence and racism in American towns like Newtown and Charlottsville. Vonnegut suggests human beings, whether there is a Creator or not, have free will. Vonnegut implies humans choose to be machines that ignore environmental destruction in pursuit of the American Dream.