Breakfast of Champions Summary
Breakfast of Champions is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut in which Kilgore Trout travels to the Midland City Arts festival and wealthy entrepreneur Dwayne Hoover has a mental breakdown.
- Penniless science fiction author Kilgore Trout hitchhikes to the Midland City Arts festival, which he has been invited to speak at.
- Wealthy entrepreneur Dwayne Hoover is having a nervous breakdown. He suffers from hallucinations, which cause him to lash out violently.
- Hoover goes on a violent rampage after reading one of Trout's stories.
- Vonnegut, as a character, greets the mentally and spiritually unsettled Trout and states that he is setting his characters free of his control.
Published in 1973, Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions is a satiric novel that mixes humor with a depressing worldview. The satiric tone of the novel is established early when Vonnegut explains that the title of his book is actually a registered trademark of General Mills, but that it is “not intended” to disparage their “fine products.” However, the focus of Breakfast of Champions is not only the superficiality of corporate slogans. Vonnegut deconstructs the pursuit of happiness in America, as well as the concepts of liberty and equality. The novel is also deeply personal, and Vonnegut inserts himself into the text. The sprawling narrative even contains felt-pen drawings of things like electric chairs, an anus, and fried chicken. Vonnegut’s tale follows an unconventional plot and introduces characters in a seemingly haphazard way, but it is primarily organized around the stories of Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover.
Trout is an eccentric, unsuccessful, and aging science fiction novelist who knows very little about science. He refers to mirrors as “leaks” that serve as gateways between universes. His work has been widely published, but only in pornographic magazines. However, when he receives a call to go to an arts festival in Midland City, it seems that he has become “fabulously well-to-do.” It turns out that his lone fan, Eliot Rosewater, has recommended Trout to speak at the Midland City Arts Festival. Trout may not be famous, but at least he owns a tuxedo, which is required. Upon reflection, Trout is not inclined to leave his parakeet, Bill, all alone, and he is about to decline the invitation when he realizes although “they don’t want anything but smilers out there…maybe an unhappy failure is exactly what they need to see.” So Trout decides to attend.
Trout has never met Dwayne Hoover of Midland City, though the reader learns early on that the two men will encounter one another before the end of the novel. Unlike Trout, Hoover has had great success running a Pontiac dealership. He has gone on to invest in other businesses in Midland City and has made a great deal of money. In fact, everyone that sees Dwayne agrees that he is “fabulously well-to-do.” Sadly, the narrator explains, the chemicals in Dwayne’s brain are making him act erratically. Hoover’s life has not been the same since his wife committed suicide. She drank Drano, a chemical that is designed to unplug drains. Looking back later, the narrator explains, people would wonder how they missed the signs that Dwayne was going crazy. Only Dwayne’s fellow veteran, Harry LeSabre, seems to notice that Dwayne has changed.
The entire world appears to be as off-balance as Dwayne. The narrator explains that
everywhere were the shells of the great beetles which men had made and worshipped. They were automobiles. They had killed everything.
The chaos and destruction of the world is mirrored in Dwayne’s life. Since his wife committed suicide, Dwayne has been having an affair with his secretary, Francine. Francine is in love with Dwayne and tries to help him. She suggests that he open a KFC franchise near the prison because
I thought of all of the people who come out here to visit their relatives, and I realized how most of them were black, and I thought how much black people like fried chicken.
Francine’s comment expresses no concern for social problems like the high percentage of African Americans in prison, but she does speak out of a desire to help her lover. Unfortunately, Dwayne is spiteful, thinking that she is merely asking him to buy her a KFC franchise. He is now...
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successful, but his life has not always been easy. Dwayne’s mother was a “defective child-bearing machine” and died while giving birth to him. It turns out that his father, who left thereafter, was a “disappearing machine.”
Meanwhile, Trout is in New York City, which is just as chaotic as Midland City. The atmosphere of America is reflected in Trout’s old stories, which the narrator summarizes. For example, one of Trout’s stories is about Zog, an alien that communicates through farts and tap-dancing. Zog tries to share with earthlings how war can be prevented and how to cure cancer. Unfortunately, Zog is killed while farting and tap-dancing in a vain effort to warn a family that their house is on fire. Like many of Trout’s stories, the narrator explains, the tale of Zog illustrates the problems that can arise when communications fail.
Before he leaves New York, Trout has several adventures. He visits a theater that shows pornographic films. He also uses a men’s room, and when he sees a question sprawled on the wall asking about the meaning of life, Trout thinks that it is to be the “eyes and ears and conscience of the universe.” He goes to 42nd street, where he is attacked and robbed. He wakes up to police interrogation and explains that he could have been robbed by aliens from Pluto, which leads to a search for a new gang of “Pluto Bandits.” These consequences are quickly left behind as the plot continues. However, the narrator explains that Trout is “inadvertently poisoning the collective mind of New York City.” However, perhaps it was poisoned to begin with. When the narrator considers American history, he looks back and sees many contradictions. Among these contradictions is the following: one of America’s greatest heroes was a slave owner that has since become known as one of the greatest thinkers to discuss the importance of liberty.
Even though he has suffered setbacks in New York, Trout continues his trip to Midland City. He catches a ride with a trucker to continue his journey. Along the way, they travel through West Virginia where Trout “marveled at how recently white men had arrived in West Virginia, and how quickly they had demolished it—for heat.” The countryside has been depleted as people mined it for coal. The coal was used to power trains, to provide heat, and to generate energy for factories. The narrator reflects that “choo-choo trains and steamboats and factories had whistles which were blown by steam when Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout and I were boys.” The insertion of the first-person voice becomes more prevalent as the story goes on, and parallels between the author and his two heroes are developed during the second half of the novel.
In fact, the author inserts not only a voice but himself into the story when Trout arrives in Midland City. While sitting in a piano bar wearing mirror sunglasses, or “leaks,” the author sips on a martini. The waitress, Bonnie, serves martinis, ironically introducing them to her customers as the “breakfast of champions.” While this is happening, the author shares his ambivalence for traditional stories—particularly the kind that Beatrice Keedsler, a successful writer and another bar patron, tells. The author reflects:
Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.
The author takes responsibility for his choices, and he goes on explain that he “gave” Trout legs that recalled the author’s father. He consciously gathers his characters together for the violent climax of his story.
Dwayne Hoover meets Kilgore Trout and quickly reads one of the author’s stories. Dwayne reads that he is surrounded by machines as opposed to people with freewill or inherent value. Each machine has its own purpose: some love, others hate, but all of them prod Dwayne’s psyche. He believes that this story is the literal truth and goes on a violent rampage. He attacks his homosexual son, George “Bunny” Hoover, by smashing Bunny’s face into a piano. He attacks his lover, Francine, and goes on to assault random people on the street. The author explains that there is no "authorial justice" in these attacks, though one of the victims is a rapist. Not even Kilgore Trout is able to escape the assault, and Dwayne bites off Trout’s finger. Before his attack ends, Dwayne explains to the “machines” that his wife committed suicide because that was the kind of machine she was. So many people are injured that a special ambulance called “Martha” is used to take them to the hospital. His rampage has injured so many that he will be sued until he is “rendered destitute.” People that see Dwayne now will comment that he “doesn’t have doodley-squat now, but he used to be fabulously well-to-do.” To this the narrator replies “and so on.”
In the epilogue, Trout’s finger is disinfected and treated. Out of cash but bound to finish his journey, Trout begins walking to the Midland Arts Festival, unaware that it has been postponed. Along the way, the narrator explains that he was waiting to intercept Trout. When they see each other, Trout runs away, but the narrator catches up and tells Trout that he is just a character in a novel, something that Trout has suspected. Because he is approaching his fiftieth birthday, the narrator explains, he is
cleansing and renewing [himself] for the very different sorts of years to come. Under similar spiritual conditions, Count Tolstoi freed his serfs. Thomas Jefferson freed his slaves. I am going to set at liberty all the literary characters who have served me so loyally during my writing career.
As the narrator leaves, Trout, who is free for the first time, yells out to him. The narrator recognizes Trout’s voice as that of his father and he is yelling out “make me young.”
Breakfast of Champions closes with two felt-pen drawings. The first image reads “etc.” The second is a picture of a man’s face in profile, crying.
Kilgore Trout is a largely obscure science-fiction writer living in Cohoes, New York. Although his work is widely published, it is used only as filler text in pornographic novels and magazines. No one, reader or fan, has ever acknowledged Trout for his writing. Trout himself can find copies of his fiction only by seeking them out in lurid sex shops.
One day in 1972, Trout receives a letter from Fred T. Barry, a wealthy industrialist from Midland City. Barry, strangely enough, has come across Trout’s work and is an ardent fan. Barry uses his influence as chairperson of Midland City’s arts commission to garner Trout an invitation to be the keynote speaker at the city’s annual arts festival. A hermit for many years, Trout nonetheless takes Barry up on the opportunity to appear in Midland City, where he plans to use the festival as his chance to espouse to the reading public the highly unconventional views expressed in his stories.
Dwayne Hoover, a prosperous entrepreneur in Midland City, has no knowledge of Trout. Despite owning a lucrative car dealership and several other businesses in town, Dwayne is miserably unhappy and suffers from serious inner turmoil. His wife had recently committed suicide, and his son Bunny is estranged from him because Dwayne refuses to accept the young man’s homosexuality. Dwayne also is involved in a torrid and less than fulfilling affair with his secretary, and he also is experiencing hallucinations, panic attacks, and other symptoms of an emotional breakdown.
Upon receiving word of his invitation to speak in Midland City, Trout, nearly penniless and devoid of all but the most rudimentary social skills, hitchhikes to nearby New York City, where he plans to thumb a ride to the Midwest with a long-haul trucker. Shortly after arriving, he finds a copy of his novel Now It Can Be Told in a pornography shop, but is promptly mugged. Having lost everything but the book and the ten-dollar bill he had stashed inside his trousers, he is forced to hit the road even earlier than he had anticipated.
In Midland City, Dwayne’s symptoms continue to worsen. Unable to deal with people, he begins spending nights at the Holiday Inn near his car dealership. He devotes most of his day to driving aimlessly around town, listening to radio commercial jingles. One time while at the Holiday Inn, he becomes convinced that the asphalt under his feet is sinking deep into the ground as he walks across it. Shortly thereafter, he returns to the dealership to check up on things, only to find that he has developed echolalia—a rare condition that forces him to repeat the final words of those who speak to him.
Wayne Hoobler, a former convict, loiters around Dwayne’s car dealership. Just released from a lengthy prison sentence, Hoobler is destitute and hopes to convince Dwayne to give him a job. He recognizes Dwayne’s face from his car ads; Dwayne is the only person Hoobler knows outside prison because he has been locked up for most of his life. Because of his fragile emotional state, however, Dwayne barely notices Hoobler, even though Hoobler is determined to catch Dwayne’s attention.
What does catch Dwayne’s attention, however, is the allure of his secretary, Francine Pefko. Already involved in an affair with the doting Francine for several months, Dwayne stealthily calls her from his office and invites her for a rendezvous at the Holiday Inn. Sensing that her coworkers suspect that she is sleeping with Dwayne, she is reluctant to ask if one of them could cover her desk. Finding it impossible to not please Dwayne, she eventually succeeds in getting away from her desk.
During the ensuing encounter with Dwayne, Francine makes an offhand remark about how nice it would be if Midland City had a Kentucky Fried Chicken fast-food restaurant. On the brink of insanity, Dwayne misinterprets her comment, thinking that she had attempted to blackmail him into buying her a lavish gift as compensation for her attention. Still suffering from echolalia, he mocks her repeatedly and causes her to become hysterical. A heated exchange occurs between the two, but as quickly as he had turned on Francine, Dwayne returns to being equally deferential. Unnerved but relieved, Francine returns to her usual passive self and pretends the exchange never happened.
In the meantime, Trout has been picked up by a series of traveling salespeople and truckers and is fast approaching Midland City. During the long hours on the road, he recalls the plots of several of the stories and novels he has written, giving his travel companions a sense of the quirky but highly insightful nature of his fiction. Finally, he reaches Midland City and checks into the Holiday Inn, the site of tomorrow’s arts festival.
In the hotel’s cocktail lounge, two other festival participants—Rabo Karabekian, an abstract expressionist painter, and Beatrice Keedsler, a novelist and member of one of Midland City’s wealthiest families—commiserate about how horribly provincial and boring they find the city to be. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut is listening to them and claims, in writing, to be both their manipulator and their unobtrusive observer. Vonnegut finds their remarks about Midland City crass and distasteful, particularly because Karabekian has just received fifty thousand dollars from one of the city’s wealthy benefactors for a painting consisting of nothing more than a piece of tape affixed to a painted canvas.
At the same time that Vonnegut is expressing his disdain for the two artists, Dwayne enters the lounge. Purely by chance, Dwayne encounters Trout. They start a conversation that ends with Dwayne asking him to explain “the secrets of life.” Trout, taking this as an acknowledgment of his own literary genius, presents Dwayne with the copy of his novel Now It Can Be Told that he had purchased in New York. The book depicts human beings not as agents of free will but as mindless automatons. Inspired both by the novel’s disturbing message and by his own intensifying dementia, Dwayne falls into a rage and attacks his son Bunny, the lounge’s pianist. In his ensuing breakdown, Dwayne assaults not only Bunny but also Trout, Vonnegut, Pefko, Hoobler, and several onlookers.
Vonnegut and Trout, now in an ambulance, are being treated for their injuries. Ironically, they are treated alongside Dwayne, who is bound in a straitjacket and soon to be institutionalized.