Thin gruel for Vonnegut fans

The film "Breakfast of Champions" misses the point: What "Bokononists" love is Father Kurt's smart anti-intellectualism.

Published October 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Breakfast of Champions," the movie, is unwatchable, a mesh of op-art shots and A-list actors straining to play small-town kooks. But that won't stop people from going to see it -- the kind of people who would spend $1,800, the going price, for the first paperback edition of Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, "Player Piano," published in 1952.

Two decades after the writer's prime, his cult is still going strong. They create Vonnegut home pages, steep themselves in Vonnegut family lore, buy the 693-page "The Vonnegut Encyclopedia." They play in Vonnegut homage bands like Deadeye Dick and Kilgore (after Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut's sad-sack alter ego). And while Vonnegut's young followers will no doubt do director Alan Rudolph the favor of seeing his film "Breakfast of Champions," Rudolph has no idea what it is that draws them to the man they call "Father Kurt." Mistaking Vonnegut for the sort of literary writer whose books are meant to be made into prestige films, Rudolph shows himself to be the kind of artiste Vonnegut would ignore, or, if he could work up the energy, flip the bird to.

Vonnegut's fans look to him to satisfy their desire for a permissive patriarch. They trust his books because in each of them they find the author's own old-fashioned cantankerous Midwestern persona. His books' prologues are often signed by that immutable wise fool "K.V." In the prologue to "Jailbird," he tells folksy stories about his hometown, Indianapolis, and recalls fighting World War II. "Slaughterhouse Five," which takes place partially in Dresden -- where Vonnegut was a POW -- is introduced by K.V.'s recollections of teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, getting into "perfectly beautiful trouble" while he was "working on a book about Dresden." K.V. colludes with his readers in their hatred of cold adults: In "Jailbird," for instance, K.V. notes that Kilgore Trout "could not make it on the outside." But, he says reassuringly, "that is no disgrace. A lot of good people can't make it on the outside." Vonnegut offers himself, Father Kurt, as the salve for his readers' hurts -- a forgiving paterfamilias and an angry teenager wrapped in one.

Literary fashions may change, but Vonnegut's gently misanthropic voice, Pall Mall-hoarse, stays true. His heroes are almost always those excluded from any successful clique. Howard W. Campbell Jr., the American spy/Nazi speechifier of Vonnegut's best novel, "Mother Night," is a better man because he has fallen out of the cruel, hypocritical world of adult busyness. After the war, Campbell suffers and pines alone in his room, his only human activity playing chess: Vonnegut's ostensibly grown characters almost always resemble lonely adolescent boys. And thus boyish but grownup readers are as flattered by the books as they were 30 years before. According to Vonnegut's literary calculus, underdeveloped loners are far superior to mature super-professional phonies.

But Vonnegut's an unlikely cult hero. For one thing, he's neither a hermit nor a reprobate. For another, unlike many other cult writers -- Neal Stephenson, author of cyber tales for hackers, or Jack Higgins, crafter of army tales tailor-made for aspiring colonels -- Vonnegut hates expertise; he appeals to readers who dislike professional guilds and competition, finding the values they represent to be coldly adult.

And, of course, Vonnegut's career has been too buoyantly successful to be cult-worthy. His pleasing Saturday Evening Post-style short fiction was published widely in the 1950s. In 1952, "Player Piano" got some critical attention. After "Mother Night" and "Cat's Cradle" in 1963, Vonnegut became a truly popular writer. With "Slaughterhouse-Five" in 1969 and "Breakfast of Champions" in 1973, his work became the object of academic scrutiny. But the professoriate that embraced Vonnegut did so insolently, proud of their leap across the low art-high art divide. Now, after three decades in which those hierarchies have been demolished, readers -- and his latest filmic interpreter, Alan Rudolph -- tend to forget that Vonnegut was once a "paperback writer," someone considered sub-literary, whose books were published first in paperbacks aimed at a mass-market audience.

With this latest film, Rudolph has taken "Breakfast of Champions" all too seriously, turning the sort of insouciant love that once fueled Vonnegut scholarship into a brow-furrowed faith in Vonnegut the great artist. In the preface to the novel, Vonnegut calls the book his 50th birthday present to himself, and thus the book is even more fun, winking and infantile than the average Vonnegut creation. "I am programmed at 50 to perform childishly," he writes. "To give an idea of the maturity of my illustrations for this book, here is my picture of an asshole." An asshole is then represented by an asterisk.

Where Vonnegut is nonchalant, Rudolph's film is rigid and grandiose. As the enigmatic Kilgore Trout, Albert Finney is a humorless, Andy Rooneyesque shaman. Bruce Willis, as alienated suburban car dealer-gone-madman Dwayne Hoover, goes at his role with such moral self-importance he clearly thinks he's hitting the floorboards for Faust.

"Breakfast of Champions," the novel, rejects the trappings of fine art absolutely. Vonnegut has no time for moral uncertainty, difficult language or heavy allusions. And he understands what he has rejected. Indeed, he self-consciously satirizes his paperback-writer status. In the novel, Kilgore Trout's high-minded writings are inappropriately jacketed in pulp fiction covers that feature well-endowed co-eds, a wry and self-pitying comment on Vonnegut's own lowly mass-market position. In the movie, this same set piece doesn't work, because the film is ignorant of the difference between high and low literary culture, and of Vonnegut's own compromised position between them.

That's not to say that Vonnegut was ever an outsider of Kilgore Trout-ian proportions. As critic Jerome Klinkowitz notes, Vonnegut was always a middle-class spokesman, despite his epochal countercultural stylings. After all, what's more middle-class than a dislike of experts and intellectuals?

Vonnegut's suspicion of establishment professionals may qualify him as the Internet's ideal author -- like many a geek, he prefers fantasy spaces to the real world, self-invented systems to traditional avenues of achievement. A friend of mine recently sneered that Vonnegut lovers were the sort of people who recite Monty Python routines in the shower. Perhaps. But in truth, it isn't just lovers of small green creatures and names that sound like bodily functions who are besotted with Vonnegut. In "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," Vonnegut describes what the writing of the loping genius Kilgore Trout has in common with pornography: not sex, but "fantasies of an impossibly hospitable world." Vonnegut's fiction continues to provide his readers a similarly receptive universe. One doesn't have to be schooled in technology, literature or pop culture to get it. Vonnegut's books offer the endlessly attractive condition of shared hallucination. The good guys are backward outcasts and the bad guys are shellacked success stories. For a lonesome, cerebral teenager, there is endless comfort in his candy-colored American dream gone sour.

On the Web, there's a plethora of Vonnegut home pages and a Vonnegut newsgroup where readers write about how Vonnegut changed their lives: "Nearly every real friend of mine is a fan," testifies John Dowell, who programs his Kurt Vonnegut Web page from his home in Bowling Green, Ohio. "When I first met the only woman I ever asked to marry me, I told her I was a Bokononist. She kissed me right-square on the mouth and then said she was a Bokononist also. And we're both still Bokononists, as it were." (The hero of "Cat's Cradle" is a Bokononist, a member of a religious sect that speaks a nonsensical language.)

In one post to a Vonnegut site, a fan wrote that he gets "sticky-eyed and choked up when we talk about some of the books." He knows how this must come off to the uninitiated: "Every time I tell people how much KV's work means to me, they give me this look as though they were talking to Mark David Chapman."

Of course, the Web was also the perfect breeding ground for the 1997 Vonnegut sunscreen cyber hoax, where Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote a column that had a Vonnegut ring to it, advising people to dance and wear sunscreen. On the Internet, the falsehood that this column was in fact an MIT commencement speech by Vonnegut spread like wildfire. The hoax wasn't such a stretch. At a 1970 Bennington College commencement address, the enemy of expertise told the class that they would be much "safer" if the government stopped funding science and started shelling out for "astrology and the reading of palms."

If this sort of cranky anti-intellectualism can be tiresome, at least Vonnegut is in conversation with the values he's rejecting. He's intelligently anti-intellectual. By contrast, Alan Rudolph's "Breakfast of Champions" is anti-intellectual without even realizing it. Rudolph made the same mistake in his film about Dorothy Parker, "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," in which the boozy, acidic 1920s wit was re-construed as positively bardic. It's a shame that one of the few American filmmakers who has any interest in literature takes exuberantly casual writers and treats them like sacred monuments.

By Alissa Lara Quart

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