Kurt Vonnegut manages to repel me, yet draw me in at the same time in his books. Of course, he’s most famous for Slaughterhouse Five, which I finally read a couple years ago. I’ve read a few of his other works, including The Sirens of Titan and Slapstick, neither of which is as compelling as Slaughterhouse Five, which is based on Vonnegut’s experience of surviving the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, during World War II. I just finished Breakfast of Champions, which is not in the least about Wheaties cereal. It went down a little easier than some of the other Vonnegut novels, because it’s not quite as misanthropic in tone. Vonnegut is known for his dark sense of humor, which can be a bit much for me at times.
It’s a distinctive style of writing — just as Hemingway is instantly recognizable, so is Vonnegut. There’s a declarative, straightforward way of moving the story forward, with a heavy dose of irony and a dash of the absurd. Breakfast of Champions is tinged even more with the absurd because of the drawings by Vonnegut that illustrate the story, such as that of a dinosaur, which is emblematic of coal (formed partially of “dinosaur excrement”). Let me give you an excerpt to show what I mean about the style; Dwayne is one of the book’s two protagonists:
Dwayne’s bad chemicals made him take a loaded thirty-eight caliber revolver from under his pillow and tick it in his mouth. This was a tool whose only purpose was to make holes in human beings. It looked like this: [there is a drawing of a snub-nosed revolver]. In Dwayne’s part of the planet, anyone who wanted one could get one down at his local hardware store. Policemen all had them. So did the criminals. So did the people caught in between.
The plot of Breakfast of Champions weaves back and forth between the life of Dwayne Hoover, a car dealership owner in the Midwest whose brain chemicals have turned on him, rendering him violently insane, and Kilgore Trout, a middling science fiction writer invited to an arts festival in Dwayne’s hometown. Their lives intersect once Dwayne has gone off the deep end and Kilgore has literally waded through the industrial muck of Midland, Indiana. I’m not sure what meaning to derive from the book, which Vonnegut describes as a gift to himself for his fiftieth birthday. I guess this is why I feel so ambivalent about Vonnegut — his is such a dark, sarcastic, satirical take on humanity that there’s no uplift upon finishing his books. They seem to crash toward the end, maybe a manifestation of his own dark experiences in his family life and in the war.
I went to see Vonnegut at the University of Iowa, where he spoke about eight years ago. It was a packed audience, and my dad and I drove over from Des Moines for the lecture. I recall that he was a very funny speaker, and he gave us a preview of his upcoming book Timequake. His advice for budding writers was not to major in English; he studied chemistry at Cornell. He believed that you should know something other than other people’s writing. Once you “meet” an author in person, you approach his books differently. It makes it more personal, I think.
What about you? Do you love or loathe Vonnegut? Did his death in 2007 make you look at his work differently?