Dwayne is a “widower” who lives alone in a fancy house in the wealthy part of town with his dog, Sparky. Dwayne has a “black servant named Lottie Davis,” and while he likes her just fine, he spends most of his time talking to Sparky. Dwayne’s talks with Sparky “go on unrevised,” so this is never an indication of his insanity to Lottie.
Lottie Davis reflects systemic racism in American society. As a woman of color, she is placed in a position of service to Dwayne, a white man, and he clearly doesn’t respect her. Dwayne may claim to like her, but when given the choice, he chooses to talk to his dog and ignore Lottie.
Kilgore has a parakeet named Bill, and like Dwayne, Kilgore spends most of his time talking to his pet. He tells Bill that the atmosphere will soon be “unbreathable,” and it will be the end of the world. “Any time now,” Kilgore tells Bill. “And high time, too.” To Kilgore, “humanity deserves to die horribly, since it has behaved so cruelly and wastefully on a planet so sweet.”
This passage highlights Vonnegut’s environmental argument. The atmosphere is not suddenly becoming “unbreathable”—in many cases, humanity has willfully and knowingly destroyed the environment, and in Vonnegut’s judgement, the world “deserves” the environmental state of the planet since humanity is directly to blame for its ruin.
Kilgore is in the habit of calling mirrors “leaks.” He pretends that mirrors are “holes between two universes,” and he warns small children not to get to close to them. “You wouldn’t want to wind up in the other universe, would you?” he asks them. Whenever someone says they must “take a leak,” Kilgore tells them: “Where I come from, that means you’re about to steal a mirror.” After Kilgore is dead, “everybody” will call mirrors leaks.
Kilgore’s habit of calling mirrors “leaks” is another example of the arbitrary nature of language. Regardless of whether a reflective surface is referred to as a “leak” or a “mirror,” it refers to the same thing, which implies that words and meaning are ultimately arbitrary. The fact the Kilgore is so revered by the time of his death that he has the social power and authority to reassign the meaning of words is absurd, but it is in this way that Vonnegut argues any meaning is likewise arbitrary and often absurd.
In 1972, when Kilgore meets Dwayne, Kilgore is living in a “basement apartment in Cohoes, New York.” He is in the business of aluminum storm windows, but he works as an installer and not a salesman because he doesn’t have any “charm.” Dwayne has charm but not Kilgore. “I can have oodles of charm,” Vonnegut says, “when I want to.”
Vonnegut’s personal interjection is one way in which this novel is a piece of metafiction. He constantly reminds the reader that the story is his creation, a form of art, which he presents in an attempt to entertain and, hopefully, inspire.
Kilgore is the author of over one hundred novels and two thousand short stories, but decent publishers have never heard of him. He doesn’t make copies of his writing, and he sends his work off to publishers without a return address. Kilgore sends most of his work to “World Classics Library,” a publisher of “hard-core pornography.” They use his work to “give bulk to books and magazines of salacious pictures.” They pay him “doodley-squat.”
Kilgore’s pornographic publisher makes his eventual transformation into a respected writer and public intellectual all the more absurd.
“World Classics Library” never tells Kilgore when or where his writing will be published, so he must search pornography stores to find them. Usually, the publisher changes the title, like “Pan Galactic Straw-boss” becomes “Mouth Crazy,” and illicit pictures accompany the text. Trout’s “most widely-distributed book,” Plague on Wheels, did not undergo a title change in publication, but Kilgore’s name is obscured by a banner that reads: “WIDE-OPEN BEAVERS INSIDE!” The pictures inside are of women with their “legs far apart.” The word “beaver” is “code” used by men to talk about a woman’s vagina. “A beaver,” Vonnegut writes, is “actually a large rodent.” He includes a drawing of a beaver as well as a crude drawing of a woman’s vagina for comparison. “This is where babies come from,” he says.
“World Classics Library’s” use of the word “beaver” to describe a woman’s vagina also reflects the postmodern opinion that language is arbitrary. While most of the English-speaking population agrees that a beaver is a rodent, some men—a comparatively smaller yet powerful part of the population—have decided that the word “beaver” also signifies a woman’s vagina. Vonnegut also takes this opportunity to warn against overpopulation, the dangers of which are often ignored in the blind quest for “beaver.”
Plague on Wheels is about a “dying planet” named Lingo-Three that is inhabited by American-made automobiles. The cars live on “fossil fuels” and can “reproduce.” Space aliens visit Lingo-Three because they hear that the planet’s atmosphere has been “destroyed” and they want to visit the planet before the automobiles become extinct. Kago, the leader of the aliens, can do nothing to help, but he promises to remember them. “You will be gone,” Kago tells the cars, “but not forgotten.” Kago indeed keeps their memory alive and tells the inhabitants of a planet named “Earth” all about them. Kago, however, doesn’t realize that Earthlings can be “easily felled by a single idea.” On Earth, there is “no immunity to cuckoo ideas.”
Vonnegut purposefully draws a parallel between the fictional destruction of Lingo-Three and the similar demise that many environmentalists argue will happen on Earth if people continue to rely on fossil fuels, particularly through the manufacturing and use of American automobiles. Not only does the process of manufacturing cars negatively impact the environment through the production of industrial waste, but this negative effect is continued through the burning of gasoline and other fossil fuels required to run them. In this way, Plague on Wheels serves as a cautionary tale.