I was 15 the first time I heard an adult say that America might be something other than a perfect shining beacon of freedom. The adult who said it was Kurt Vonnegut Jr., a novelist. A novelist was someone who wrote stories in hopes of edifying and entertaining the people who read them.
Vonnegut said the national anthem was "pure balderdash." He referred to the story of Columbus' discovery of America as "nonsense." He said some Americans "were so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might be in the wrong country."
I had never heard these ideas before.
Vonnegut said these things in a novel called Breakfast of Champions. "Breakfast of Champions" also happened to be the slogan of a breakfast cereal called Wheaties. The book's title was not meant to imply an association with General Mills Inc., the maker of Wheaties, nor was it intended to disparage their fine products.
Vonnegut said so in the book. Twice.
Kurt Vonnegut published Breakfast of Champions in 1973, during the Vietnam War. Vietnam was a place where American boys were sent to kill and die for reasons nobody was sure of. I read Breakfast of Champions in about 1976. The Vietnam War was over. The Vietnam War didn't mean doodley-squat to me.
I didn't understand how much the war had upset Vonnegut until I reread the book this week.
Breakfast of Champions is not about the Vietnam War. It is about the world that allowed the Vietnam War to happen.
Breakfast of Champions is the story of an automobile dealer named Dwayne Hoover and a novelist named Kilgore Trout. In the end, Dwayne Hoover goes crazy. He mashes his own son's face into a piano keyboard. He punches his mistress in the stomach. He bites off the end of Kilgore Trout's finger.
And so on.
The world that created the story of Columbus' discovery and the national anthem full of question marks also created Dwayne Hoover.
I saw Vonnegut's house in New York once. I knew someone who had the address, so I went there. Vonnegut was a hero to me.
The little tag on the buzzer outside his door said "Krementz." Krementz, I knew, was his wife, the photographer Jill Krementz.
I did not ring the buzzer.
I was surprised when I reread Breakfast of Champions. Surprised at how simple and lovely the sentences are. Surprised at how lean and compact it is. Surprised at how sad Vonnegut seems. Surprised that there is almost no love in the story.
When my children turn 15 I will give the book to them.