Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions follows Kilgore Trout, a little-known science fiction writer, and Dwayne Hoover, a mentally ill car salesman, and their chance meeting at an arts festival in the American Midwest. Kilgore earns his living installing aluminum storm windows but spends most of his time writing. He doesn’t consider himself a real artist, however, and while he is the author of over one hundred novels and two thousand short stories, he doesn’t bother to tell anyone that he is a writer. Most of Kilgore’s work is published in pornography magazines, and he never keeps carbon copies of his writing, which he claims to “detest.”
One day, Kilgore receives his first piece of fan mail from Eliot Rosewater, an “eccentric millionaire” who believes Kilgore is America’s greatest living novelist. Kilgore assumes Rosewater is just “some kid,” or worse, mentally ill, and he thinks little of the letter until he is suddenly invited to speak at an arts festival in Midland City. “Why all this sudden interest in Kilgore Trout?” Kilgore asks his pet parakeet, Bill. As it turns out, Eliot Rosewater had convinced the Chairman of the festival to invite Kilgore in exchange for the use of his El Greco, a three-million-dollar painting from the Spanish Renaissance. Against his better judgement, Kilgore decides to go the festival and give them what they have never seen before—an artist who devoted his entire life to the “search for truth and beauty—and didn’t find doodley-squat!”
Dwayne Hoover, on the other hand, is a “fabulously well-to-do” businessman from Midland City. His principal business, Dwayne Hoover’s Exit Eleven Pontiac Village, is known as one of the best places to work in town, but Dwayne is slowly spiraling into insanity. Dwayne’s mental problems are due in part to the “bad chemicals” naturally occurring in his brain, but he is further stressed by his wife, Celia’s, suicide and the life choices of his son, Bunny, a “notorious homosexual.” Dwayne tries to keep his insanity private, but as his condition worsens, he can no longer disguise his illness. Dwayne presents as excessively happy and he often breaks out into inappropriate singing. He frequently hallucinates and sees a duck directing traffic and parking lots made of trampolines. Dwayne even begins to compulsively repeat others’ words. Still, no one in Midland City seems to notice that Dwayne is suffering, and he is left alone in his fancy house with his dog, Sparky, and a loaded thirty-eight caliber revolver.
As Kilgore hitchhikes his way to Midland City, he first stops off in New York City to search pornographic bookstores for copies of his writing. He hopes to spend the night in a movie theater too, because he can’t afford a hotel room, but also because he has heard that sleeping in movie theaters is “the sort of thing really dirty old men” do. Kilgore wants to arrive in Midland City “the dirtiest of old men” and “be treated like a cockroach.” He never does get the chance to sleep in a movie theater, however, and instead is abducted and left unconscious with his pants around his ankles under the Queensboro Bridge.
Still, Kilgore is not deterred, and he soon hitches a ride out of the city with a truck driver hauling “seventy-eight thousand pounds of Spanish olives.” Moving closer toward the festival now, Kilgore is confronted by a polluted and rotting countryside—the evidence of a destroyed and dying planet. According to Kilgore, it won’t be long until the Earth’s atmosphere is “unbreathable,” which will be the end of the world. “Any time now,” Kilgore says. “And high time, too.” Kilgore is of the opinion that humanity deserves to die a horrible death because they have “behaved so cruelly and wastefully on a planet so sweet.”
Meanwhile, as Kilgore inches closer and closer to Midland City, Dwayne Hoover inches closer and closer to insanity. He verbally abuses his friend and longtime employee, Harry LaSabre, simply because Harry mentions that he regrets never having or adopting children. Dwayne, who is happens to be adopted, blows up at Harry and insults his clothing, which Dwayne thinks is too drab and muted for automotive sales. Dwayne continues to verbally berate his employees, and after spending the afternoon in a hotel room with Francine Pefko, his secretary and mistress, Dwayne accuses her of being a “whore” who is only using him for his money. “Oh, God, Dwayne—” Francine says, “you’ve changed, you’ve changed.” Dwayne admits that he has “lost his way,” and he decides to go to the Arts Festival and talk to the “distinguished” artists about truth, beauty, and the meaning of life.
Kilgore finally makes it to Midland City and meets Dwayne in the cocktail lounge of the local Holiday Inn, but Vonnegut himself has entered the bar as well— “incognito” in a pair of mirrored sunglasses. Vonnegut has come to watch his creations collide, and after an uncomfortable interaction, Dwayne snatches Kilgore’s novel, Now It Can Be Told, directly out of Kilgore’s hands.
The novel is in the form of a letter from the Creator of the Universe to The Man, the Creator’s test subject and the only living creature with free will. Everyone else is a “fully automated robot” whose only purpose is to “stir [him] up in every conceivable way.” Dwayne mistakes Kilgore’s book for reality, which, Dwayne assumes, perfectly explains his tragic life. If everyone else is a robot, then his wife wasn’t a depressant who committed suicide, she was simply a machine programmed to self-destruct; likewise, Bunny isn’t really a homosexual, he is just a machine programmed that way.
Dwayne’s break with reality causes him to violently attack Bunny—after all, he is just a robot—and anyone else who gets in the way. He even goes back to his dealership and gives Francine Pefko the beating his “bad chemicals make him believe she so richly deserves.” Ultimately, Dwayne bites off the tip of Kilgore’s fingers and is sent away to a mental institution, and Kilgore, who believes “ideas and the lack of them can cause disease,” becomes a revered scholar in the field of mental health, but not before meeting Vonnegut himself.
At the end of Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut approaches Kilgore and explains himself as his “Creator,” and then he sets him free. “Under similar spiritual conditions,” Vonnegut tells Kilgore, “Count Tolstoy 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.” After giving Kilgore his freedom, Vonnegut “disappears,” leaving Kilgore confused and alone on the streets of a strange city.