The Preface begins with a disclaimer that the book is in no way related to the slogan "Breakfast of Champions," a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc.
Vonnegut introduces Phoebe Hurty, the Indianapolis widow to whom the book is dedicated. Vonnegut worked for her during the Great Depression, writing copy for clothes advertisements. She is important to Vonnegut because she taught him to be impolite about everything, and because she represents the hopefulness that permeated the Depression for a new American paradise that would come with prosperity.
The author explains his "suspicion" that humans are actually robots as arising from his childhood observance of men in the late stages of syphilis. This hypothesis is also supported by how much humans are affected by chemicals: Vonnegut's mother is an example of someone who "wrecked her brains" with them.
A self-analysis follows, in which Vonnegut calls the book a fiftieth-birthday present to himself and acknowledges his immaturity in illustrating the book with pictures of such things as "a Nazi flag and an asshole." His depiction of said asshole follows. He describes the book as "a sidewalk strewn with junk," since it is his attempt to "clear my head of all the junk in there."
The Preface ends with Vonnegut's announcement that he was born on Armistice Day, a day he considers sacred (along with Romeo and Juliet and "all music") because of eye-witness accounts he's heard of it. He signs the Preface -PHILBOYD STUDGE, a person about whom he earlier said, "That's who I think I am when I write what I am seemingly programmed to write."
Chapter 1 introduces the two main characters, "two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast," Kilgore Trout and Dwayne Hoover. This chapter lays the foundations for their meeting. Their American nationality is important to their characters. Vonnegut situates the mindset of the American people at the time within the context of the national anthem ("which was pure balderdash"), the law against dipping the flag, "a law no other nation on the planet had about its flag," and the "vacant motto": Out of Many, One.
The speaker tells the story of the founding of America as it is taught in history classes, pointing out that "some of the nonsense was evil, since it concealed great crimes." He cites the conquistadores' murderous missions and slavery as some of those evils. Race is a huge factor in the founding of the country: "Color was everything." The "heartless," "greedy" pirates that took the land from the natives were the foundation for the country as it was when Hoover and Trout met.
The speaker then discusses the discrepancy in wealth in the world, dividing it into two groups: those who were powerful, and those who didn't have "doodley-squat." He introduces the theory of Communism as a solution to over-population, and points out that "Dwayne Hoover's and Kilgore Trout's country, where there was still plenty of everything, was opposed to Communism."
Dwayne Hoover was "fabulously well-to-do" and also addicted to chemicals that "unbalanced his mind." Combined with bad ideas, they were making him mad: "Bad chemicals and bad ideas were the Yin and Yang of madness."
Trout's science-fiction was giving Hoover the bad ideas, even though Trout was unaware of this and believed himself to have no impact on anyone else. His writing had convinced Hoover that he alone is not a robot; "everybody else was a fully automatic machine, whose purpose was to stimulate Dwayne. Dwayne was a new type of creature being tested by the Creator of the Universe."
The first chapter ends by finishing the whole story, telling how after Dwayne went to an asylum, Trout became obsessed with the notion that ideas can cause disease, as well as cure it. At first he was just "a dirty old man," but soon his ideas were taken seriously by artists and scientists alike. They even built him a monument after he died; there is a sketch of it, and engraved on it is "a quotation from his last novel, his two-hundred-and-ninth novel, which was unfinished when he died:" "We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane."
Chapter 2 begins by providing a description of Dwayne's living situation: he is a widower who lives alone in a "dream house" with his dog Sparky. He also has a black servant, Lottie Davis, with whom he doesn't converse much but whom he likes.
Kilgore Trout is also alone except for a pet: his is a parakeet named Bill. This is a connection between the two men, but they talk to their pets about different things. "While Dwayne babbled to his Labrador retriever about love, Trout sneered and muttered to his parakeet about the end of the world." Trout is described as believing that humanity deserves to die horribly, since it behaves as cruelly as the Roman emperor Heliogabalus.
The speaker now introduces an important theme: that of mirrors as "leaks." Trout calls them leaks, "to pretend that mirrors were holes between two universes." This theme continues through the story, and becomes relevant at the end of the story when the speaker enters the world of his characters, transcending universes. Calling mirrors "leaks" catches on by the time of Trout's death, when he is famous and influential.
Trout is described as having no charm, while Hoover has "oodles of charm," as does the speaker. Nobody knows Trout is a writer, since he makes no copies of his work and puts little concentrated effort into getting his work published. His work is published in pornographic books and magazines, alongside "illustrations which had nothing to do with his tales." An example is the story of Delmore Skag.
Trout's most widely-distributed book was Plague on Wheels. It was published under the banner "Wide-Open Beavers Inside!" The speaker explains that a "wide-open beaver was a photograph of a woman not wearing underpants, and with her legs far apart, so that the mouth of her vagina could be seen." The speaker explains the origin of the euphemism "beaver," and draws sketches of the two kinds of beavers (an animal and a vagina). Wide-open beavers are described as "the most massively defended secret under law," comparably unattainable to girls' underpants for little boys.
Kilgore Trout's Nobel Prize speech in 1979 references the rhyme, "I See England/I see France/I see a little girl's/Underpants!" Vonnegut uses this anecdote to hint at the state of the world in 1979: England and France are "two nations which no longer existed as such," and "human beings are now the only animals left on earth." This hinting at the future by embedding details in anecdotes is common throughout the book.
Now the story of Plague on Wheels is revealed: it's about life on a dying planet named Lingo-Three, where the people are actually automobiles with wheels. Visiting space travelers (homosexual, inch-high people from the planet Zeltoldimar) discover that the automobile-people have destroyed the resources on Lingo-Three. The space travelers cannot save the automobile-people, since their eggs are too heavy to bring back to Zeltoldimar; their spokesman, Kago, says, "You will be gone, but not forgotten." The space travelers leave Lingo-Three and later arrive on Earth. They tell the Earthlings about the automobiles that are dying out on Lingo-Three, and unknowingly bring about the destruction of the Earthlings because, "human beings could be as easily felled by a single idea as by cholera or the bubonic plague." This is another important theme: ideas as disease.
The speaker again uses the technique of hinting at the future of Earth, by using Trout's story: "Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter... And then Earthlings discovered tools. Suddenly agreeing with friends could be a form of suicide or worse." But Earthlings continue agreeing with each other, "being friendly when they should have been thinking instead," governed by ideas. This is the reason that ideas can spread like disease.
Chapter 3 continues the description of Plague on Wheels, Trout's story that was introduced at the end of Chapter 2. It reveals the fate of Earth after the introduction of the automobile: "Every form of life on that once peaceful and moist and nourishing blue-green ball was dying or dead. Everywhere were the shells of the great beetles which men had made and worshiped. They were automobiles. They had killed everything."
Next we are introduced to Eliot Rosewater, the writer of Trout's only fan mail before 1972. Trout concludes from the writing that Rosewater must be a teenager, a misconception which he retains throughout the story. The letter says that Trout should be made president of the United States; but that would be impossible, since Trout was born in Bermuda. His father, Leo Trout, guarded the only nesting place in the world for Bermuda Erns. The Ern is a symbol that is continued throughout the story, along with that of birds in general. Trout "had seen those Erns die, one by one." They were the largest creatures to fly on the planet, but were now extinct because of athlete's foot, which was brought to their rookery by men and which eventually killed the Erns. Kilgore's task as a boy was to measure the wingspans of the Ern corpses, a job which is identified as leading to his life-long melancholy.
Kilgore then receives a letter from Fred T. Barry, the chairman of a festival celebrating the opening of the Mildred Barry Memorial Center for the Arts in Midland City. Fred T. Barry says that Trout was recommended to the festival by Eliot Rosewater, and includes a check for $1000 with the invitation. Trout is suspicious at these two letters, since he doesn't want strangers "tampering with the privacy of his body bag." Trout pulls out his old tuxedo, which he hasn't worn since senior prom, and which is covered in mold.
Then Trout decides to make Bill's biggest three wishes come true. He opens the door to the parakeet's cage, and Bill flies over to the windowsill. "There was just one layer of glass between Bill and the great out-of-doors." Then Trout opens the window, but Bill flies back inside his cage. Trout says to Bill, "That's the most intelligent use of three wishes I ever heard of. You made sure you'd still have something worth wishing for - to get out of the cage."
Trout argues with himself about whether or not to attend the festival, and finally decides to go, telling Bill: "Listen, I'm leaving the cage, but I'm coming back." He hitchhikes to New York City in order to buy some of his books in pornography stores there, so he can read out of them at the festival in Midland City. He wants to tell them what he hopes to have on his tombstone: "Somebody [Sometime to Sometime] He Tried."
Chapter 4 returns to Dwayne, who "was meanwhile getting crazier all the time." So far, he has been behaving acceptably in public. Vonnegut uses the technique of foreshadowing by revealing what people would say later, after Dwayne "ran amok." Dwayne has begun to sing to himself, which makes his secretary, Francine Pefko, think he is getting happier and happier rather than crazier and crazier. Harry LeSabre, Dwayne's sales manager, notices that Dwayne is going crazy a week before he "went off his rocker," and mentions it to Francine.
The speaker explains how Dwayne bought a Pontiac agency so cheaply: he borrowed it from the bank, putting up stock in a company called The Midland City Ordnance Company. When he bought the stock, it was called The Robo-Magic Corporation of America. Harry LeSabre and Vernon Garr are identified as the only two employees who have been with Dwayne since the agency was in a "Nigger part of town."
Dwayne was never in combat, but as a civilian employee of the US Army Air Corps during WWII, he got to paint a message on the side of a bomb. There is a drawing of the bomb with the message on its side, which reads: "Goodbye Blue Monday." The meaning of this symbol won't be explained till the end of the story, but the repetition of the phrase "Goodbye Blue Monday" in this chapter makes clear that the reader should be on the look out for significance in it.
Harry goes into Dwayne's office and makes small talk, and happens to mention adoption. Dwayne snaps, since he himself was adopted. He berates Harry for his boring wardrobe. This is why Harry mentions to Francine that Dwayne seems strange, since this kind of starkly mean behavior is unusual. Francine reminds him that Dwayne is "the best employer in town," and doesn't think it's a big deal.
Hawaiian Week is approaching; it's a sales promotion scheme that enters customers into a lottery to go to Hawaii, and involves decorating the agency like the islands. Dwayne mentions it as impetus for Harry to change the way he dresses. Harry is especially offended by Dwayne's behavior because he is a secret transvestite; only his wife knows about it. Harry now worries that Dwayne is threatening him.
That weekend is Veterans' Day weekend; Veterans' Day has already been signaled out by Vonnegut as "not sacred" in the Preface. Dwayne's "bad chemicals" make him stick a gun in his mouth. But instead of shooting himself, he instead shoots up one of his bathrooms. He shoots a picture of a flamingo (drawing provided), and "snarled at the recollection of it afterwards. Here is what he snarled: 'Dumb fucking bird.'"
Dwayne goes outside to play basketball, and his dog, Sparky, watches him. Then he jumps into his car and goes on a dangerous ride, going backwards and jumping a curb, finally stopping in a vacant lot that he happens to own. Nobody observes any of this behavior. This is an important link between Trout and Hoover: Trout feels like nobody knows he exists, and Hoover has just acted insanely and nobody knows.
The Preface introduces the important theme of humans as machines, and Chapter 2 expands upon this theme, specifically representing humans as cars in Plague on Wheels. This story by Trout not only reflects the narrator's opinion of humans as machines, it also hints at another major theme of Breakfast of Champions, which is the destruction of the planet. The preface presents the theme of humans as machines alongside the idea of humans wrecking their brains with chemicals; this connection proves to be important to the story, since Dwayne, one of the characters who is pointed out as using "chemicals" regularly, meets his downfall when he becomes convinced that all other inhabitants of Earth are robots.
Chapter 1 likewise lays out a few themes that will be important throughout the story. First, the theme of the emotional state of Americans is introduced when the narrator states that many Americans are "so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might be in the wrong country, or even on the wrong planet, that some terrible mistake had been made." This description is later applied to the character of Wayne Hoobler in particular; it is also used to personify animals, for example the dog, Lancer, whose excrement ends up on Kilgore Trout's jacket.
Chapter 1 also introduces the theme of ownership, by generally dividing Americans into the groups of "fabulously well to do" and those who don't have "doodley squat." This theme will play itself out through Trout's story, "This Means You," as well as through the descriptions of several characters - for example, the homeless people on Skid Row, where Bunny Hoover lives, as compared to Eliot Rosewater and his family, who own the oil under all the land in West Virginia.
Chapters 3 and 4 provide a groundwork for the theme of birds, which is tied to that of the destruction of the planet, and which appears throughout the story. The Bermuda Ern, which becomes extinct because of the spreading of the human strand of disease, athlete's foot, is a recurring reference. The interaction between Trout and his parakeet makes stark the comparison between Bill, the caged bird who ultimately chooses to remain caged, and the Erns, the huge extinct species from Bermuda. Trout personifies Bill by linking his own situation in fearing the arts festival to that of the bird: "I'm not going, Bill. I don't want out of my cage." Bill will later be compared to Wayne Hoobler, who has been caged his whole life in various prisons, and doesn't know what to do with himself now that he's released. A third bird symbol is the inanimate flamingo in the bathroom that Dwayne shoots. The Erns flew free but were made extinct by disease; Bill is given the opportunity to be free but opts to stay in his cage; and the flamingo in the bathroom is never alive, but is shot all the same by Dwayne.
The motto of The Robo-Magic Corporation of America, which is "Goodbye, Blue Monday," as well as The Robo-Magic itself, are prominent motifs that are introduced here. "Goodbye, Blue Monday" takes on various implied meanings throughout the story, finally being shouted by an incoherent Dwayne in the ambulance, as the ultimate random phrase to baffle his Creator. The Robo-Magic becomes a symbol of both advertising and race, linking the two in its original advertising scheme, in which it is lauded as doing the "Nigger work" of washing clothes.