When I was thirteen, my family moved to the south suburbs of Chicago. It was a grim place, the kind of town where culture and happiness go to die. The only distractions were the mall, the dollar cineplex, and the YMCA parking lot — all seemingly created solely as a place for teenage boys to get blowjobs. Because I wasn’t ready just yet to feel braces brushing against my frightened penis, I spent my weekends at the local library.
It was, even for people who enjoyed reading, a depressing hellhole. It smelled of bored sadness, like a DMV or a walk-in medical clinic. Books were arranged in no particular order, spanning from fiction to nonfiction, hardcover to paperback, thrown together on the shelves like somebody was in a hurry and couldn’t be bothered.
Personally, I’ve always been a sucker for neglected books. There’s something about the yellowing, frayed pages and the covers tattooed with hard creases, like the wrinkles of an old man whose body has betrayed him but his head is still full of ideas. A library that’s run like a garage sale can be frustrating chaos, until you realize it’s really a scavenger hunt.
Without wandering the aisles and searching for nothing in particular, I wouldn’t have discovered pulp books. It was another universe from the required reading at my school. There was nothing exciting about Huckleberry Finn or Moby Dick or the other bloated epics I was repeatedly forced to read. But here, in the athenaeum of lost souls, I discovered Doc Savage, Mack Bolan and the Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu.
During my library excavations, I learned how important it is to judge a book by its cover. You didn’t need to read the first sentence to recognize a genuine action-adventure classic. It was all in the cover art. If it featured a scowling and/or brawny goliath, brandishing a firearm bigger than his forearm, his shirt disintegrating from the sheer force of his pulsating man-nipples, you could be fairly confident that the plot was a page-turner. And sometimes it was as simple as looking for the most exciting title font. The best titles popped out at you, demanding your attention, like a punch to the face.
And that’s how I stumbled upon Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. I knew I’d found something special. The title was in pseudo-3-D, like a Superman comic, practically leaping from the front cover. I skimmed the description and although it sounded only vaguely promising — “two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast”… from radioactive poisoning? — I still felt it was a safe gamble. I had to believe that Kilgore Trout was a hard-nosed detective who wouldn’t think twice about ripping the arms from the sockets of an attacking gorilla before making sweet, adjective-heavy love to his blonde assistant.
When I took Breakfast of Champions home and actually started reading it, I was underwhelmed. I didn’t know what to make of any of it. It was just inane gibberish, like the paranoid ramblings of an uncle who’d had a few too many scotch-and-sodas. Within just the first ten pages, Vonnegut argued that all human beings were robots, our country was founded by mediocre poets, and mirrors are holes between universes. It reminded me of that homeless guy I saw when my family took a weekend trip to the city. He was standing on the corner, dressed in King Lear rags, screaming about how the government was reading his mind with radio waves. We did what any reasonable suburban family would do when encountering a genuine nutcase; we crossed the street and avoided eye contact.
Not that Breakfast of Champions was completely without promise. I was intrigued by Vonnegut’s description of a science fiction masterpiece called Plague on Wheels, about a dying planet inhabited by talking cars. This book, if it indeed existed, apparently also included hardcore pornography — featuring Chinese twins, no less. It seemed too good to be true. A riveting tale of alien automobiles facing extinction and pictures of naked ladies spreading their beavers? Sweet gentle Jesus, it was all of my teenage desires rolled up into one paperback edition. I decided to keep reading in the slim hope that Vonnegut provided more clues as to where this holy grail of meta-literature could be obtained.
But then I got lazy. When my parents didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow after catching me with the book, I thought I could get away with bringing it to school. I was very, very wrong.
Mr. Spearing, my 7th grade English teacher, was a humorless old windbag. He was short and stocky, like a character from a Tolkien novel, with a bowl cut of dirty red hair and a bushy mustache that looked fake, like a tuft of rat hair that’d been attached with glue. He didn’t care for his students, and he found most literature to be personally abhorrent. He wouldn’t allow us to read F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway because he thought it’d turn us into alcoholics. Salinger and Steinbeck were just potty-mouths with typewriters, Dickens and Faulkner glamorized poverty, and Orwell would provoke our anti-authority urges. That pretty much left us with a few painfully boring Jane Austin novels and Beowulf (the homoeroticism of the latter apparently lost on him).
When Mr. Spearing ran out of things to say about the books he didn’t openly despise, which was at least once a day, he assigned us “quiet time” to read silently until the bell rang. On one fortuitous afternoon, I pulled out my copy of Breakfast of Champions and, as if by divine intervention, opened directly to the page with Vonnegut’s asshole self-portrait.
Until that day, I hadn’t paid much attention to the book’s dozens of crude drawings. I didn’t really understand them. It was as if Vonnegut assumed his readers were somehow unfamiliar with most of the basic things on this planet that we take for granted. Just explaining cows and chickens and clocks and tombstones wasn’t good enough. He had to show us these things before we’d truly understand. So every few pages, he’d write “Here is what a dinosaur looks like” or “Here is what a ‘No Trespassing’ sign looks like,” and then include an illustration of that object.
The asshole, a hastily drawn asterisk, was funny to me mostly because it was so surprising. I wasn’t offended by it, I just wasn’t expecting it, especially not from an author who repeatedly reminded his readers that he was 50 years old. It’d be like hearing a priest say, “My balls are itchy.” It’s not the substance, it’s the context.
I must’ve laughed a little too loud, because Mr. Spearing came charging over to my desk and ripped the book out of my hands. He looked at it with revulsion, unable to comprehend that such vulgarity had somehow slithered into his classroom. His lips moved but no sound came out. His face was pale, his eyes popping like a vaudeville straight-man who’d just figured out that the joke was on him.
He held open the offending page and thrust it at me, giving me one last look at the atrocity I’d brought into his world. “That is not funny at all,” he snarled, his voice seething with hatred. “This is just childish and immature and disgusting!”
He took the book from me. It was evidence, he said. And then he informed me, through clenched teeth, that he had no choice but to call my parents and request a meeting. I could see a glimmer of joy in his eyes. This was the bust he’d been waiting for his entire career. I was a one-kid black market for literary contraband and he’d caught me red-handed.
My parents had a formal sit-down with Mr. Spearing the very same evening. From what they told me later, he was livid, pounding a fist against his desk with Mussolini enthusiasm, his face red with rage and moral certitude. He called Breakfast of Champions “dangerous.” That was the one adjective he kept repeating: Dangerous. Like somehow the book was hiding a shiv in its sleeve and was prepared to stab any child it suspected of being a prison snitch.
“It’s just an asshole,” my father laughed, annoyed that he’d wasted an entire evening debating such nonsense. “Everybody has one. And I’ll tell you, they don’t all look as good as they do in that book.”
“Honey, please,” my mom said, embarrassed for both of them.
“Well, it’s the truth. Some assholes are downright nasty. An asterisk is a compliment to the human body.”
The book was gone forever. Mr. Spearing wouldn’t give it up, even though it didn’t belong to me. I’m sure he called the library and gave them a thorough lecture about the smut they were unknowingly peddling to innocent minds. In a matter of days, my sanctuary of pulp disappeared. Nothing remained. It was haunting to return to the library, with its now eerily empty shelves. It was like visiting Anne Frank’s attic and catching glimpses of ghosts, like reflections of a happier time before everything went to shit.
I could live without the spy novels or the jungle expeditions into deepest, darkest Africa. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Breakfast of Champions. Did Mr. Spearing seriously think it was dangerous? I couldn’t wrap my head around that. How could a book be dangerous just because one of the pages had an asterisk that vaguely resembled an anus? That was all it took? I wished I had taken a closer look when I had the chance. It clearly had some power I hadn’t appreciated. And to a teenage boy who felt anything but powerful, it just made it all the more mysterious and mythical.
It’s the same reason boys are attracted to comic books featuring superheroes with rippling muscles and absurd physical abilities. Because we feel so small and insignificant in our own lives, we need the fantasy to feel strong and untouchable. That’s what Vonnegut’s asshole was to me. A superhero without the cape… or arms or legs… and more anusy.
For my 14th birthday, my father bought me a brand spanking-new copy of Breakfast of Champions. I held onto it like it was made of gold and the suburbs were overrun with pirates. I finally got around to reading the rest of the book, and I took my time with every sentence, studying it for hidden secrets. It changed my brain chemistry — in a good way, not in a Dwayne Hoover shooting-spree sort of way. I started having unpopular opinions, which I’d share with my peers whether they wanted to hear them or not. I’d say things like “The National Anthem is just balderdash” and “Communism encourages sharing with people who have doodley-squat” and “Our country is just a bully with rockets.” They looked at me like I was crazy, but I was just drunk on Vonnegut freedom.
Once, when a bigger kid cornered me in the cafeteria and announced that he intended to kick my ass after school, I just smiled calmly at him and said, “It’s okay, I understand. It’s not you, it’s the bad chemicals in your brain.” His face went pale and his smirk disappeared. He ran away without saying another word and never bothered me again.
I eventually discovered the rest of Vonnegut’s canon. I had affairs with Slaughterhouse-Five and Bluebeard and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Cat’s Cradle. But my true love would always remain Breakfast of Champions. I came back to it every few weeks, re-reading my favorite passages like a Christian reading psalms. I’ve heard compelling arguments that it’s not Vonnegut’s best book, and some have suggested it doesn’t even belong in the top five. But all the well-researched dissertations and scholarly jerking-off has never convinced me.
You don’t forget your first love. And you’ll never lose affection for the one who showed you just how big the world can be.
When I learned that Vonnegut had died, I found my battered copy of Breakfast of Champions and read it again. I waited until the late evening, when the Dame was asleep. I’m not sure why I treated it with such secrecy. I actually hid under a blanket and read it with a flashlight, which I quickly turned off if I heard so much as a creak on the floorboards. It was like I expected the Gestapo to kick down my door. Even after all these years, the book still had that kind of power for me. Just holding it in my hands again made me feel like I was getting away with something.
When I opened to page six, the very page with the first asshole sketch, I was transfixed. I stopped reading and just stared at it again. It was partly nostalgia, sure. I’ll never be able to look at an asterisk again without remembering Mr. Spearing’s face, vibrating with fury, the veins popping on his neck like tiny exclamation points. But it was something more significant than just tormenting a teacher who deserved the abuse.
If you really take the time to appreciate it, Vonnegut’s asshole has an innocent charm. He wasn’t trying to titillate or offend. He was just showing his readers something he considered perfectly normal and unremarkable. For most people, an asshole is something private, and certainly nothing they’d want to share with the outside world. But Vonnegut had nothing to hide. It was as if he thought that owning an asshole was just an ordinary part of being human.
I realize how silly and stupid this must seem. There’s so much satirical brilliance in Breakfast of Champions, and yet I insist on focusing on the scatological. Do I have the emotional maturity of a drunk frat-boy? Maybe so. But I still believe that Vonnegut’s asshole means something. It’s not the content so much as the symbolism. Vonnegut’s asshole is to me what a cross is to a Christian. There’s more to Jesus than just two pieces of wood. And there’s certainly more to Vonnegut than just a few lines drawn with a felt-tip pen. But symbols have power. And these symbols represent something more profound and complex than nonbelievers could ever begin to understand.
That’s why I don’t make fun of Christians anymore. I don’t get what the big deal is with Jesus and the whole “died for your sins” power trip. But then again, they look at Vonnegut’s asshole and they just see a sphincter. I guess we should all just agree to disagree.
In the weeks following his death, my writer friends and I gathered in bars and toasted Vonnegut and drank far too much and talked about his books until the wee hours of the morning. At some point, somebody (probably me) brought up Vonnegut’s asshole. We discussed how his innocent little drawing from Breakfast of Champions inspired such controversy, and we wondered what, if anything, it meant. Was he was trying to take the piss out of literary hubris, or at least his own lofty reputation? It’s difficult to take anybody seriously, even an icon like Vonnegut, when you’ve seen his bunghole.
At some point (and this may have been the booze talking), I suggested that it might be interesting to find out how other authors would illustrate their own sphincters. Would it resemble Vonnegut’s unmistakable asterisk? Or would they take more creative license and draw something a bit more unique?
The next day, a few of my writer friends took me up on the challenge and sent drawings of their assholes. No two were exactly the same, and some were downright fascinating. I decided to solicit asshole drawings from every writer I knew, asking them to contribute to my growing collection. I didn’t necessarily want an accurate depiction of their asshole. I wanted something a little more conceptual. I asked them: “What is your asshole’s personality? Is it happy or sad? Angry or carefree?”
What follows is a collection of some of my favorite asshole self-portraits. I’m not sure if there’s a point to any of this, or if it says anything meaningful whatsoever about how Vonnegut inspired and influenced generations of writers. I like to think that it’s more than just a homage to a great man who wrote great books. In a weird way, it feels like it has something to do with why any of us decided to become writers in the first place. The best writing, after all, is about sharing everything, even if it makes us uncomfortable or seems just a little too personal. Or maybe it has something to do with mocking literary pretension, and remembering that even authors — sometimes especially authors — shouldn’t take ourselves quite so seriously.
Or maybe we just think drawing pictures of our assholes is funny. That could be true, too.
To begin, I offer up this humble self-portrait of my own asshole. It was created using several crayola crayons and a Sharpie marker, and completed in just 2-3 minutes.
A few notes for further discussion:
* Yes, my asshole is smoking. That’s because my asshole represents my Id, and is thus able to enjoy all of the unhealthy pleasures I’ve long since abandoned. Also, my asshole doesn’t have lungs, so it’s not as concerned as I am about cancer.
* My asshole has a five o’clock shadow because it is lazy and careless with its personal hygiene. But its fiery locks of glistening hair have given it a false sense of self-confidence.
* My asshole seems slightly annoyed. I’m not sure why this is. I have treated it (him?) well, and it has no reason to be a moody or unsatisfied with its lot in life. Perhaps it hoped for more, and believes it has the shrewd book-smarts to be making more decisions on my body’s behalf. Look into its eyes and you’ll see an orifice that’s unwavering in its arrogance. It would seem that my asshole is… well, an asshole.