Breakfast of Champions has long been one of my favorite Vonnegut books, if only for the lovely eloquence about Armistice Day and Veteran’s Day in the preface. But it’s also been decades since I read it, and I’ve wanted for a long time to jump back in and enjoy it again. And, boy, did I.
As with most of Vonnegut’s books, I can’t quite come to agree with his underlying cynicism about the human race – for a secular humanist, he certainly has a pessimistic view of the merits of human beings – but I’m in love with the little images and truths he sprinkles throughout every page of his stories. Breakfast of Champions is teeming with them. They tend to reflect on greed, economic inequality, war and environmental destruction and remain as poignant and darkly hilarious today as they were when the book was published in the Watergate-era afterglow of the 1960s.. Indeed, I found it curiously coincidental that so many of his barbs on those topics coincided with themes of Barkskins, a contemporary novel of historical fiction depicting the plunder of America’s abundant forests and focusing attention on pollution and climate change.
In addition to one of my favorite passages in literature – the aforementioned reflection on the sanctity of Armistice Day, Champions also features one of my favorite scenes, the description that closes the book of Vonnegut introducing himself to his eccentric creation, science fiction author Kilgore Trout. Trout’s skepticism when approached by Vonnegut and asked if there’s anything he’d like to ask his Creator – “Do you have a gun?” – seems to be the exact response any of us would have to a stranger introducing himself as the author of all our experiences. And it somehow features in the unanswerable debate about divine plan and free will that also serves as an ongoing theme of this book. I see it somewhat in this passage, though I have to admit I may be stretching a bit simply because I love the passage so much:
“Trout was the only character I ever created who had enough imagination to suspect that he might be the creation of another human being. He had spoken of this possibility several times to his parakeet. He had said, for instance, “Honest to God, Bill, the way things are going, all I can think of is that I’m a character in a book by somebody who wants to write about somebody who suffers all the time.”
And he is! So, aren’t we all? Or, at least we all feel that way sometimes.
Anyway, I suppose it helps if you’ve read any of Vonnegut’s earlier books that include references to Trout, but it’s certainly not necessary. You’ll delight in the poetry of Vonnegut’s language and the quirky, exploding imagination that creates dozens of stories within a story that itself centers on a person whose depression turns to mad violence when he reads a book telling him it’s from his Creator and his whole life is an illusion in which he is the only actual living being.
You gotta read it.