The truck driver and Kilgore make their way into West Virginia, which has been destroyed by coal mining. Massive holes are collapsing into one another and the hills and mountains have become so unstable that they crumble into the valleys below. The state is “demolished,” and now most of the coal is gone. The demolition of West Virginia was approved by “the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the State Government, which drew their power form the people.”
When Vonnegut mentions that the demolition of West Virginia was approved by the government which in turn draws it power from the people, he essentially argues that the destruction of the planet is the fault of the people. As the people have caused the pollution, Vonnegut argues that they deserve to live with it—or die because of it if that indeed is the consequence.
Kilgore supposes that all the heat from the coal has escaped into outer space, but “like most science-fiction writers,” Kilgore knows nothing about science. The heat from the coal requires an atmosphere to travel, and beyond the Earth’s atmosphere is “an all-but-perfect vacuum.” The size of the Earth’s atmosphere “relative to the planet isn’t even as thick as the skin of an apple.”
Vonnegut’s comparison of the atmosphere to the skin of an apple underscores just how fragile the environment really is. The vacuum beyond the atmosphere means that pollution has nowhere to go but linger near the delicate atmosphere.
The truck driver stops at a nearby McDonald’s restaurant and Kilgore goes inside for a cup of coffee. Kilgore sits down next to an old coal miner and asks him how he feels about working in an industry “whose business is to destroy the countryside.” The old man turns to him and says he is “usually too tired to care.” Most of West Virginia is owned by the Rosewater Coal and Iron Company, and they also own what is under the ground as well, which means they have the right to “tear up” anything to get to what they own. “Don’t matter if you care,” the old man says, “if you don’t own what you care about.”
The coalminer is “too tired to care” about the environment because he has enough trouble just trying to survive day-by-day as a poor person. Putting a roof over his family’s head and feeding them everyday takes precedence over the environment. Here, the negative effects of capitalism and the unequal distribution of wealth are twofold—it leads to both the destruction of the planet and the destruction of society.
Back on the road, the truck driver asks Kilgore why he wants to go to Midland City. Kilgore lies and tells him that his sister is sick. “Midland City is the asshole of the Universe,” the driver says. “If it isn’t in Midland City, it’s in Libertyville, Georgia.” The driver had been jailed for speeding in Libertyville, where the main source of industry was pulping up old paper to make new paper. “The unloading process was sloppy,” the driver says, “so there were pieces of books and magazines and so blowing all over town.”
The truck driver is the first character to refer to Midland City as “the asshole of the Universe,” as Rabo Karabekian refers to it in the same way. This is a fitting description, since Midland City is the dumping site where Vonnegut unloads all the garbage in his head, like pollution, racism, and capitalism.
“Anyway,” the truck driver says, “they had so many books in Libertyville, they used books for toilet paper in the jail.” Since he had been arrested on a Friday, the driver had nothing to do the entire weekend but sit and read toilet paper. The driver read one story, he tells Kilgore, about a “crazy” planet where the government used a “roulette wheel” to assign the worth of art. Kilgore has a sudden attack of “déjà vu.” The toilet paper in Libertyville, Georgia, was Kilgore’s book, This Year’s Masterpiece.
Libertyville’s use of books as toilet paper, especially Kilgore’s books, reflects the subjective value of art. Eliot Rosewater has just placed ridiculous value on the very same art Libertyville views as disposable. In this vein, the value that Rosewater applies to Kilgore’s writing is just as random as spinning a roulette wheel.
This Year’s Masterpiece takes place on a planet named Bagnialto, where a government official “spins a wheel of chance” once a year to determine the cash value of art. One year, a cobbler named Gooz paints a picture of his cat; Gooz’s painting is deemed to be worth the equivalent of one billion dollars on Earth. The government burns all the art said to be worthless by the wheel, but then they learn that the wheel is “rigged,” and the government official responsible for spinning the wheel commits suicide. Kilgore doesn’t tell the truck driver that he is the author of his toilet paper, and they drive on in silence.
Here, Vonnegut implies that the value of all art is arbitrary and assigned in absurd ways. Like Gooz’s painting, Kilgore’s art is equally adored and devalued for completely arbitrary and ridiculous reasons. By the end of Kilgore’s life, his writing will be revered because an eccentric millionaire found worth in it, not because it is inherently valuable.
Incidentally, as Kilgore makes his way to Midland City, he unknowingly passes through the part of West Virginia where Dwayne’s stepparents originally came from. Before coming to Midland City after the First World War, Dwayne’s stepparents’ last name was Hoobler; however, when they moved to Midland City, where many of the city’s black citizens were named Hoobler, they promptly change their name to Hoover. “It was embarrassing,” Dwayne’s stepfather said. “Everybody up here naturally assumed Hoobler was a Nigger name.”
Dwayne’s stepfather’s desire to change the family name from Hoobler to Hoover is another reflection of racism in American society. He doesn’t want to be associated with the black community in any way, and even despite the fact that Dwayne’s stepfather is white and would never be confused for a black man, he nevertheless wants to distance himself as much as possible.