In 1972, Kilgore receives his first piece of fan mail from an “eccentric millionaire” named Eliot Rosewater. Kilgore is “so invisible” that Rosewater must hire a private investigator to find him. In the end, “the search cost eighteen thousand dollars.” Rosewater’s letter declares Plague on Wheels the “greatest novel in the English language,” and he tells Kilgore that he should be the President of the United States.
Eliot Rosewater’s willingness to spend so much money searching for Kilgore just to send him a fan letter underscore’s Vonnegut’s argument that art’s value is not inherent or universal. The masses are indifferent to Kilgore’s artistic efforts, but Rosewater finds serious value in Kilgore’s art, and this is reflected in his eighteen-thousand-dollar search.
Kilgore can’t be the president, however, because he was born in Bermuda. His father had been an American citizen who worked in Bermuda studying Bermuda Erns. The erns “eventually became extinct, despite anything anyone could do.” They were ultimately killed by a fungus which had been brought “to their rookery in the innocent form of athlete’s foot.” The dead erns are the source of Kilgore’s deep “pessimism” that “overwhelms” his life and “destroys” three marriages and his relationship with his son, Leo.
The extinction of the Bermuda Ern (a type of bird) is more evidence of the destruction of the planet. The erns, abundant before the colonization of Bermuda, were ultimately killed by the influx of people and non-native species, such as pigs and cats, to the island. Vonnegut’s claim that the erns’ extinction was due to an “innocent form of athlete’s foot” is symbolic of the human cause of this environmental tragedy.
Kilgore considers Rosewater’s letter “an invasion of privacy.” Vonnegut interrupts to say that Kilgore Trout is entirely his creation. “I made him snaggle-tooted,” he says. “I gave him hair, but I turned it white.” Vonnegut has given Kilgore the legs of his own father, which he describes as “hairless broomsticks.” Vonnegut also makes Kilgore receive an invitation to an Arts Festival shortly after Rosewater’s letter.
Vonnegut’s interruption firmly cements Kilgore, and the other characters, as Vonnegut’s creation. In this way, Kilgore and the other characters are machines that Vonnegut controls, which makes Vonnegut’s later admission that he can’t completely control them even more powerful and startling.
The invite is from Fred T. Barry, the chairman of a festival in celebration of the opening of the Mildred Barry Memorial Center for the Arts in Midland City. Barry admits that he has not read any of Kilgore’s books, but Kilgore comes “highly recommended by Eliot Rosewater.” Inside the envelope is a check for one thousand dollars. Kilgore is “suddenly fabulously well-to-do.”
This passage again points to the arbitrary nature of the value of art. Fred T. Barry knows nothing about Kilgore’s writing, but he is willing to give Kilgore a considerable amount money and invite him to publicly speak about art merely on Rosewater’s recommendation.
Fred T. Barry invites Kilgore because he needs a “fabulously valuable oil painting” to showcase during the Festival. He can’t afford one, but Rosewater has an “El Greco worth three million dollars or more,” which he promises to display it at the arts center if Barry invites Kilgore to speak at the Festival. Barry wants Kilgore to wear a tuxedo, and luckily, he has one, although he hasn’t worn it for over forty years. The last time Kilgore wore a tux was to the senior dance at Thomas Jefferson High School. Kilgore’s school in Dayton, Ohio, had been “named after a slave owner who was also one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty.”
Rosewater’s donation of the El Greco again underscores art’s subjective value. When Rosewater donates the painting worth at least three million dollars, this implies that Kilgore’s art is also worth a comparable amount. Of course, Kilgore’s art isn’t worth anything according to his publishers and is frequently published next to tasteless pornography, but Rosewater is willing to pay an absurd amount of money for it. In this vein, Vonnegut suggests that art’s value is ultimately assigned in completely random ways.
Kilgore has no intention of becoming the “laughing stock” of the Festival, but after thinking more about it, he decides to go. “An unhappy failure is exactly what they need to see,” Kilgore says. “Listen,” he says to his parakeet, “I’m leaving the cage, but I’m coming back. I’m going out there to show them what nobody has ever seen at an arts festival before: a representative of all the thousands of artists who devoted their entire lives to a search for truth and beauty—and didn’t find doodley-squat!”
Kilgore functions as a sort of anti-artist. He turned to art to find truth and beauty but found nothing, and he wants to bring that same level of disappointment to the festival. He goes to the festival for the very same reason he initially refused to go—to become a “laughing stock.” He wants to be laughed at, which is why he later tries to show up as the “dirtiest of old men.”