Breakfast of Champions

by Kurt Vonnegut

I don’t think I can fully express how important this book is to me. The first time I read Breakfast of Champions was sometime around ’07 or ’08, when I was an impressionable University student building up my knowledge in areas unrelated to literature of this sort. And it seriously blew my mind. I think it opened up my understanding of what could be accomplished with storytelling, and it directly caused me to seek out strange and difficult works. I’ve been meaning to revisit this one for a long time, because I never review something based on long-ago memories of a work and it felt criminal that I never took the time to actually review it. I instantly knew that it wouldn’t diminish at all in my mind when I started laughing so hard I nearly cried after only the second page––although, in hindsight, I wonder if such a strong reaction had less to do with how funny it is and more with how comforting it was to read it again.

Breakfast of Champions is a satire still quite unlike anything else I’ve read. The story concerns the eventual meeting of Kilgore Trout, the cynical, struggling author that appears in at least a few Vonnegut books, and Dwayne Hoover, a hugely successful businessman with budding mental instability. The book explores their contrasting lives and what brings them together to the fateful meeting where a dangerous idea in one of Kilgore’s novels causes Dwayne to go into a violent rampage. And, while I get how something this specific about a climax may sound like a spoiler of sorts, understand that this is a case where Vonnegut not only makes all this clear from the start, but he also uses this information to great effect to ramp up tension, much as he has so successfully in the past.

The satire of the novel comes in the form of the disrespectful way the author describes the setting, how he frequently takes stabs at so many sacred cows of the modern world while exploring his plot, but that’s only a piece of it. Vonnegut channels a childlike innocence in the way he regards war, sex, religion, and racism––or childishness as he explains it early on––and the book almost reads like someone explaining things at a basic level to someone lacking context, like someone from another planet or … a child, I suppose. The lack of respect makes clear that great “untouchable” subjects shouldn’t be immune to ridicule, and the straight-faced way he approaches serious or lewd topics makes the book laugh-out-loud funny while simultaneously shows that much of what we take for granted in this world is far more ludicrous than we’d care to admit.

What became clear during this reading is how honest and moral I find Breakfast of Champions to be, but I can also imagine how it could possibly come across as stupid or rude or pointless if a reader isn’t open to the style. If you ever give it a try, do your best to see it not as an attempt to offend, but, rather, as an attempt to show things as they really are––that a subject being serious doesn’t make it sacred, and we similarly needn’t find it scary.