This is the story of “two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which is dying fast.” Kilgore Trout, a “nobody” science-fiction writer, assumes that his meaningless life is nearing its end, but he is wrong. By the time he dies, Kilgore will be revered. The other man, Dwayne Hoover, a Pontiac dealer, is “on the brink” of insanity.
Vonnegut’s environmental message is clear from the first sentence of the novel’s first chapter. Earth, the setting of the novel, is “dying fast,” and Dwayne Hoover’s Pontiac dealership metaphorically represents one of the major causes: massive pollution from the American car industry.
“Listen:” Kilgore and Dwayne live in the United States of America, where “a lot of citizens are so ignored and cheated and insulted that they think they might be in the wrong country, or even the wrong planet.” Their country’s motto, “E pluribus unum,” or “Out of Many, One,” says nothing of “fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness.” Instead, it is as if the country is telling its citizens, “In nonsense is strength.”
Vonnegut repeatedly tells the reader to “Listen” throughout the novel. This technique, which Vonnegut uses in other novels as well, draws increased attention to whatever he is about to say. Here, Vonnegut plainly says that American society marginalizes certain citizens, namely the poor and people of color, for the benefit of others. The nation’s motto is essentially arbitrary “nonsense” that means nothing to those who are marginalized.
Some of this “nonsense” is “evil” and “conceals great crimes.” For instance, schoolteachers everywhere tell children that America was “discovered” in 1492; however, there where already millions of people “living full and imaginative lives” there. 1492 was simply the year “sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.”
The “great crimes” Vonnegut speaks of are racism and exploitation. As he later clarifies, the “sea pirates were white” and those they sought to “cheat and rob and kill” were not. This crime against humanity is glorified and perpetuated across America in schoolrooms everywhere through lessons about Christopher Columbus, who came to the continent later known as America in 1492.
Schoolchildren are taught more “evil nonsense” when they are told that the “sea pirates” founded a government to be “a beacon of freedom” to people around the world. There is a statue of the “imaginary beacon” for all to see (Vonnegut includes a picture of the beacon, or torch, which looks like a “ice-cream cone on fire”). The pirates had slaves and “used human beings for machinery.” The natives already on the continent were “cooper-colored” and the “sea pirates were white.” The humans brought to the continent by the pirates were black. “Color was everything.”
Here, Vonnegut directly identifies America’s Founding Fathers as “sea pirates,” or in other words, racists. He maintains that the idea of America as a “beacon of freedom” for all is simply “evil nonsense” because those who were owned as slaves and exploited for labor were not given the same freedoms and opportunities that others enjoyed. Vonnegut ultimately argues that the legacy of slavery in America means that people of color are still without basic freedoms and opportunities.
The pirates were able to take over the continent because they had weapons and “the best boats,” but they were successful mostly due to their “capacity to astonish.” Until the sea pirates came, no one had ever seen humans so “heartless and greedy.”
The sea pirates set a precedent for immoral behavior that is reflected throughout much of the novel in the form of corporate greed, racism, and human exploitation.
By the time Dwayne and Kilgore meet, America is “the richest and most powerful country on the planet.” Many other countries, however, are “uninhabitable.” They are overpopulated and running out of room. There is little to eat, but “still the people go on fucking all the time. Fucking is how babies are made.” Some countries are “Communists,” and they believe that all resources should be shared equally, yet “more babies are arriving all the time—kicking and screaming, yelling for milk.”
This passage introduces Vonnegut’s concern with overpopulation and the role that the rising population plays in the destruction of the planet. Vonnegut’s mention of communism is in keeping with his overall critique of capitalism, yet he seems to concede that even a communist approach can’t solve problems of inequality if more and more people are born into a society where resources are already dwindling.
Dwayne and Kilgore’s America is “opposed to Communism” and doesn’t make citizens share if they don’t want to; “most of them don’t want to.” Dwayne is very wealthy, or “fabulously well-to-do,” but Kilgore owns “doodley-squat.” They will meet at an Arts Festival in Midland City, Dwayne’s hometown.
Dwayne reflects American excess and greed. He owns multiple businesses and is exceedingly rich, yet he doesn’t share with the less fortunate because he doesn’t want to, and his capitalist society doesn’t compel him to either.
Dwayne is “going insane,” mostly due to “a matter of chemicals.” His chemicals are out of proportion, but “like all novice lunatics,” Dwayne needs “some bad ideas” for his lunacy to have “shape and direction.” Together, “bad chemicals and bad ideas are the Yin and Yang of madness” (Vonnegut includes a drawing of the Yin and Yang symbol, the “Chinese symbol of harmony”).
Vonnegut draws attention to mental illness in American society, which he argues is not solely due to the inner workings of physiology and the mind. Instead, bad social “ideas” also add to this chemical imbalance. In Dwayne’s case, it is not his “bad chemicals” alone that make him attack the people of Midland City—it is the “idea,” planted by Kilgore’s book. In this way, society is partially responsible for mental illness. Therefore, Vonnegut implies, society is responsible for recognizing and managing mental illness as well.
Dwayne will get his “bad ideas” from Kilgore. Kilgore believes himself to be “not only harmless but invisible,” and he often “supposes he is dead.” Kilgore, however, gives Dwayne the idea that everybody on Earth is a robot except for Dwayne, and that all other people are “fully automatic machines whose purpose is to stimulate Dwayne.” Unlike everyone else, Dwayne “has free will.”
Like in Kilgore’s story, many characters in Breakfast of Champions don’t necessarily have “free will” either. Wayne Hoobler, the black ex-con, doesn’t exactly enjoy free will, nor does Gloria Browning, who is presumably forced to undergo an illegal abortion. These people are at the mercy of others, just like the robots in Kilgore’s book are at the mercy of the Creator of the Universe.
When Trout realizes that that he can “bring evil into the world” through “the form of bad ideas,” he becomes a “fanatic” preaching the power of “ideas as causes and cures for diseases.” At first, no one listens, and Trout is left ignored, yelling: “Ideas or the lack of them cause disease!” Eventually, Kilgore will become an important figure in the study of mental health. His theories, which he will assert through his science-fiction writing, will be his legacy. The American Academy of Art and Sciences will honor Kilgore with a memorial upon his death. Vonnegut includes a picture of the monument and it reads: “Kilgore Trout / 1907-1981/ ‘We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.’”
Through the inscription on Kilgore’s memorial, Vonnegut implies that society’s “bad ideas,” like racism and capitalism, are unhealthy and arguably insane. A society that seeks to marginalize others through various means should never be considered “healthy,” and Vonnegut’s book reflects this opinion. Additionally, Kilgore’s writing, which is a form of art, is initially thought to be worthless but is ultimately considered priceless, and this reflects Vonnegut’s argument that art’s value is subjective and often arbitrary.