Breakfast of Champions
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday, published in 1973, is the seventh novel by the American author Kurt Vonnegut. Set predominantly in the fictional town of Midland City, Ohio, it is the story of "two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast." One of these men, Dwayne Hoover, is a charming but deeply deranged Pontiac dealer and extensive land and franchise owner whose mental illness causes him to believe that a science fiction story by the other man, Kilgore Trout, is the literal truth. Trout, a largely unknown pulp science fiction writer who has appeared in several other Vonnegut novels, looks like a crazy old man but is in fact relatively sane. As the novel opens, Trout hitch-hikes toward Midland City to appear at an art convention where he is destined to meet Dwayne Hoover and unwittingly inspire him to run amok.
Kilgore Trout is a widely published, but otherwise unsung and virtually invisible writer who is invited to deliver a keynote address at a local arts festival in distant Midland City. Dwayne Hoover is a wealthy businessman who owns much of Midland City, but has become increasingly unstable mentally. The novel is achronological and frequently shifts focus between Hoover and Trout, as well as supporting characters like Hoover's son, Bunny, and Wayne Hoobler, and Kurt Vonnegut himself, who appears as the author of the book. "The novel's structure is a simple one, yet it employs simultaneously evolving plots from different times and spaces." Early on, Vonnegut as narrator/creator says he's going to purge himself of mental clutter, and, throughout the novel, can be found examining and refuting disparate concepts, from the 'discovery' of the new world in 1492 to euphemisms for genitalia.
When Kilgore finally arrives in Midland City he piques the interest of Dwayne. A confused Dwayne demands a message from Kilgore, who hands over a copy of his novel. Dwayne reads the novel, which purports to be a message from the Creator of the Universe explaining that the reader - in this case Dwayne - is the only individual in the universe with free will. Everyone else is a robot. Dwayne believes the novel to be factual and immediately goes on a violent rampage, severely beating his son, his lover, and nine other people before being taken into custody. While Kilgore is walking the streets of Midland after Dwayne's rampage the narrator of the book approaches Kilgore. The narrator tells Kilgore of his existence, and lets Kilgore be free and under his own will. Kilgore begs to be made young again, and the novel ends with a full-page drawing of Vonnegut crying.
Suicide, free will, mental illness, and social and economic cruelty are dealt with throughout the novel. In the preface, Vonnegut states that he tends "to think of human beings as huge, rubbery test tubes, too, with chemical reactions seething inside." As with Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and The Sirens of Titan (1959), the nature of free will is called into question, in this case by considering mankind as biological machines, and physical measurements of characters are often given when they are introduced. He attributes the mental illness of Dwayne Hoover and society at large to an abundance of "bad chemicals" in the brain which, when combined with bad ideas, formed "the Yin and Yang of madness." This idea, that humans are no more than machines, is contained within the novel Kilgore Trout gives to Dwayne Hoover. Both Trout and Vonnegut realize the power of bad ideas, with Vonnegut remarking how "natural it was for [people] to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: it was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books." The view of humans as biological machines, initially accepted by Vonnegut, is counteracted by Rabo Karabekian, the abstract artist who suggests "Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery."
The novel is critical of American society and its treatment of its citizens, many of which Vonnegut writes "were so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might be in the wrong country." He focuses largely on race, the poor, and the destruction of the environment, criticizing the hypocrisy of a land that claims to be based on the principles of freedom having been founded by people who "used human beings for machinery, and, even after slavery was eliminated, because it was so embarrassing, they and their descendants continued to think of ordinary human beings as machines."
The novel is simplistic in syntax and sentence structure, part of Vonnegut's signature style. Likewise, irony, sentimentality, black humor, and didacticism, are prevalent throughout the work. Like much of his oeuvre, Breakfast of Champions is broken into very small pieces, in this case separated by three dots. Vonnegut himself has claimed that his books "are essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips...and each chip is a joke." Characteristically, he makes heavy use of repetition, in this case starting many sections with "Listen" and ending many with "And so on."
The novel is full of drawings by the author, intending to illustrate various aspects of life on Earth, are sometimes pertinent to the story line and sometimes tangential. They include renderings of an anus, flags, the date 1492, a beaver, a vulva, a flamingo, little girls' underpants, a torch, headstones, the yin-yang symbol, guns, trucks, cows and the hamburgers that are made from them, chickens and the Kentucky Fried Chicken that is made from them, an electric chair, the letters ETC, Christmas cards, a right hand that has a severed ring finger, the chemical structure of a plastic molecule, an apple, pi, zero, infinity, and the sunglasses the author himself wears as he enters the storyline.
Breakfast of Champions makes heavy use of metafiction, with Vonnegut appearing as the narrator/creator of the work, explaining why and how he makes this world as it is, changing things when and as he sees fit, and even being surprised by events.
The novel also makes use of intertextuality with Vonnegut's other works. In addition to Kilgore Trout, characters from other Vonnegut books which appear here include Eliot Rosewater and Rabo Karabekian. Rosewater was the main character in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) and a minor character in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), while Karabekian later became the main character in Bluebeard (1988). Hoover's secretary, Francine Pefko, previously appeared in Cat's Cradle (1963), where she performed secretarial duties at General Forge and Foundry, in Ilium, New York. (Pefko also appears in "Fubar," a story released posthumously in Look at the Birdie.) Vonnegut uses the name "Khashdrahr Miasma" for a minor character, in reference to a character in Player Piano. The vicious guard dog, Kazak, was Winston Niles Rumfoord's pet in The Sirens of Titan (1959) and Selena MacIntosh's guide dog in Galápagos (1985). Many of Midland City's inhabitants reappear in Deadeye Dick (1982), which locates the city in Ohio.
The title, taken from the well-known slogan for Wheaties breakfast cereal, crops up in a key scene late in the novel when a waitress, apparently ironically, says "Breakfast of Champions" each time she serves a customer a martini. Vonnegut, in his typical ironic manner, mocks the legal and copyright systems as he notes meticulously that Breakfast of Champions is a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc. for its breakfast cereal products, and that his use of the term is not "intended to disparage their fine products."
Vonnegut refers to himself as "Philboyd Studge" in the preface, a name which he claims his friend Knox Burger associated with cumbersome writing. The name appears to have been borrowed from a short story by Edwardian satirist Saki. ("Filboid Studge, the Story of the Mouse that Helped", describes the success of the eponymous breakfast food through bizarrely counter-intuitive advertising.)
Doubts about publication
According to an article in the New York Times Magazine in January 1971, "Vonnegut says repeatedly he is through writing novels... After Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut began work on a novel called Breakfast of Champions, about a world in which everyone but a single man, the narrator, is a robot. He gave it up, however, and it remains unfinished. I asked him why, and he said, 'Because it was a piece of ----." This view persisted, with Harlan Ellison claiming that Vonnegut's submission in the 1972 short-story anthology "Again, Dangerous Visions," would be "the last new piece of fiction you will ever read by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr." After the publication of Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut stopped publishing short stories, and many believed he had given up writing altogether, with the New York Times book review stating, "Mr. Vonnegut's persona gives up fiction before our very eyes. . . . When he self-destructs himself as a novelist by first warning us in the middle of his book that '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 story-telling.'"
In the preface, Vonnegut states that as he reached his fiftieth birthday he felt a need to "clear his head of all the junk in there"—which includes the various subjects of his drawings, and the characters from his past novels and stories. To this end, he sprinkles plot descriptions for Trout's stories throughout the novel, illustrates the book with his own simple felt-tip pen drawings, and includes a number of characters from his other novels and short stories.
Vonnegut's previous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, was his first commercial success, and brought him from being an unknown science-fiction writer to one of the most famous authors in the country.
Breakfast of Champions spent a total of 56 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list, 28 weeks for the hardcover edition and 28 for the paperback. The novel received positive reviews from the New York Times, TIME, and Publishers Weekly. Vonnegut himself was unhappy with the novel, and gave it a C grade on a report card of his published work, lower than any other novel besides Slapstick (1976). However, it remains one of Vonnegut's best known and most influential works.
In 1999, the novel was made into a film of the same name, starring Bruce Willis, Albert Finney, Nick Nolte and Omar Epps; see Breakfast of Champions (film). The movie was widely panned by critics and never went into wide release.
- Klinkowitz, Jerome. "Speaking Famously: Happy Birthday, Wanda June; Breakfast of Champions; Slapstick; Jailbird; and Deadeye Dick." The Vonnegut Effect. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004. 98-124. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 212. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
- Westbrook, Perry D. "Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: Overview." Contemporary Novelists. Susan Windisch Brown. 6th ed. New York: St. James Press, 1996.
- Grossman, Edward. "Vonnegut & His Audience." Commentary (July 1974): 40-46. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley and Phyllis Carmel Mendelson. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale, 1976.
- Reed, Peter J. "The Later Vonnegut." Vonnegut in America: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut. Ed. Jerome Klinkowitz and Donald L. Lawler. Delacorte Press, 1977. 150-184. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski. Vol. 12. Detroit: Gale, 1980.Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.
- Ellison, Harlan (1972). Again, Dangerous Visions. Doubleday.
- "New York Times".
- Justice, Keith (1998). Bestseller Index. McFarland & Company. p. 316.
- Vonnegut, Kurt (1981). Palm Sunday. Delacorte.
- "Box Office Mojo - Breakfast of Champions (1999)".
- Breakfast of Champions at Goodreads
- 1973 interview with Vonnegut upon the book's release
- The New York Times book review of Breakfast of Champions, 1973