And so it occurs to me that 50 years ago on Father’s Day, I finished reading the novel Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had written while approaching his 50th birthday: 1973’s Breakfast of Champions, or Goodbye Blue Monday.
Some people feel the book marked the beginning of Vonnegut’s decline as an important writer. I don’t think that’s quite fair — Jailbird and Galápagos and Bluebeard and Timequake were still to come — but it certainly wasn’t as good as The Sirens of Titan or God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five.
Breakfast of Champions received a negative review in The New York Times and was made into a savagely panned 1999 film — starring a stellar cast of Bruce Willis, Albert Finney, Nick Nolte and Omar Epps — so bad that it never went into wide release.
Vonnegut himself wasn’t crazy about the book, which is about free will and suicide and race relations and other things but is perhaps most famous for its illustrations of his felt-tip drawings, particularly the first picture most of us had ever seen in an important literary work of a human asshole. Not to mention a wide-open beaver of the sort where babies come from.
In his 1981 “autobiographical collage” Palm Sunday, wherein the author plots his own rise and fall, he gives Breakfast of Champions a mediocre C.
Nonetheless, the novel spent 56 weeks on the Times’ bestseller list. Half a century on, I still find myself from time to time in the solipsistic position of thinking of myself — à la novel protagonist Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy and respectable Pontiac dealer — as the only creature in the universe with free will. Everyone else is a robot.
This is no doubt due to the bad chemicals in both our brains. I also suspect everyone, robotic or not, feels like this from time to time.
And I know for a fact that anyone old enough to remember reading a first edition of Breakfast of Champions in 1973 feels exactly like character Kilgore Trout — the fictional, notably unsuccessful sci-fi writer/alter ego who shows up in many of Vonnegut’s books — as the narrator/author/Creator of the Universe reveals his presence and sets Trout free.
The narrator/author/Creator of the Universe is speaking to us as the book closes:
I somersaulted lazily and pleasantly through the void, which is my hiding place when I dematerialize. Trout’s cries to me faded as the distance between us increased.
His voice was my father’s voice. I heard my father — and I saw my mother in the void. My mother stayed far, far away, because she had left me a legacy of suicide.
When Vonnegut came home from military training in 1944, he found the body of his mother, Edith, a bitter and frustrated woman who killed herself after becoming addicted to booze and prescription pills. It was Mother’s Day. Vonnegut would himself attempt suicide in 1984, an experience you can read about in his 1991 collection of essays, Fates Worse than Death.
And now, back to the closing words of the narrator/author/Creator of the Universe:
Here was what Kilgore Trout cried out to me in my father’s voice: “Make me young, make me young, make me young!”
If you’re a Vonnegut fan and really on your toes, you’ll remember a scene from Slaughterhouse-Five in which protagonist Billy Pilgrim, then 41, visits his decrepit mother at the Pine Knoll old people’s home in 1965:
Her voice was nearly gone, so, in order to hear her, Billy had to put his ear next to her papery lips. She evidently had something very important to say.
“How …?” she began, and she stopped. She was too tired. She hoped she wouldn’t have to say the rest of her sentence, that Billy would finish it for her.
But Billy had no idea what was on her mind. “How what, Mother?” he prompted.
She swallowed hard, shed some tears. Then she gathered energy from all over her ruined body, even from her toes and fingertips. At last she had accumulated enough to whisper this complete sentence:
“How did I get so old?”
I think I speak for a lot of us — as we recall the ruined bodies of our own diminished fathers and decrepit mothers here on this day in 2023, sacred to marketers of Old Spice and barbecue accessories — when I repeat that very question.
And if you’re listening while somersaulting pleasantly out there in the void, here’s a pointless plea in supplication to the narrator/author/Creator of the Universe, the depth and urgency of which none still living could possibly have fathomed half a century ago:
Make me young, make me young, make me young!