In my senior year of high school, a phrase that no doubt signals the reader to the coming pretentiousness of the blog that follows, my English teacher handed me a dog eared paperback book with a red cover and plastic peeling off the corners. The pages were yellowed and smelled musty from several sweating hands pawing over it, the text inside probably drowning in discarded skin cells from the fingertips of people whom I’d never met.
There was a yellow post it note, hanging by a thread, words written in a looping cursive that read, “You write like this author.”
It was Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.
Quite a compliment. I was unaware how great of a compliment until I thumbed it open.
Vonnegut has always held a special place in my heart. I don’t know why it took me so long to read Slaughterhouse Five, likely because I was so busy in my twenties doing nothing. That’s what people do in their twenties, I guess. You spend most of your days before your twenties confused, searching rooms with wide eyes, hoping that whatever authoritarian sword of Damocles doesn’t drop on your head in whatever square inch of real estate your pre-twenties body occupies at that moment. You spend the first twenty years nervous, but sometime around your second decade in existence you decide you’ve got it figured out. You get busy building the walls and floor of what will be your likely success, holding a hand out to brush away the naysayers, the critics and bitches who be tawkin’ s—. You dig deep into the foundation with a diamond shovel because there can be no mistakes, moving with a confidence that is both a good thing and bad thing at the same time. You cut twice, measure once. You make mistakes that you will spend a long time smoothing over. It’s sad in your twenties, you’re so busy making mistakes that you forget to read Slaughterhouse Five.
I read it last year. This post isn’t about Slaughterhouse Five.
Breakfast of Champions is, in a way, the best of Vonnegut. In the preface, he warns you that he doesn’t give a hoot about the pages you’re about to imbibe. He says that what follows is merely a list of things he’s tired of having in his mind. He sounds more resigned than he did in Slaughterhouse, more depressed and defeated. He describes, throughout the novel, human beings as machines, not at all the optimistic alien race from previous work. What emerges is more human, but not at all empathetic. It’s the kind of book where, when you put it down, it looms so much larger than it did when you were reading it. You feel its power vibrate even after you left the house, even almost a month later as I write this.
The title is not from the breakfast cereal, you’ll be reminded. It’s from the small town cocktail waitress, who whenever someone orders a martini, she sets it down in front of the person and says, “Breakfast of Champions” with a smile. She does it every time, not giving it a second thought until someone calls her out on it and after that she just admits that it’s something that she thought was funny once and she kept saying it after for reasons that she can’t come up with and she will stop saying it immediately from that day forward. For reasons I can’t describe, that description was devastating to me. I have yards of empathy for the person who says something every day because they think it will make someone feel better. When she’s forced to justify it, her world comes to pieces.
It’s hard for me to recommend this book, as depressed as I was after reading it, but I do anyway. Wholehearted, with full throat.