1990; 323 pages. New Author? : Heavens, no. Genre : Contemporary Fiction; American Literature; Satire. Overall Rating : 7*/10.
“My name is Eugene Debs Hartke, and I was born in 1940. I was named at the behest of my maternal grandfather, Benjamin Wills, who was a Socialist and an Atheist, and nothing but a groundskeeper at Butler University.”
Thus starts Hocus Pocus, wherein Eugene recounts his life story, with most of the emphasis on the last couple of years, during which he has had some quite severe ups and downs.
Through a connection with his former CO in Nam, Gene obtained a teaching position at Tarkington College, a private school in Scipio, New York for kids with learning disorders. Alas, he eventually is fired that position, and takes a similar job at Athena State Prison, just across the lake from Tarkington.
But a prison revolt leads to bloodshed, and Tarkington College becomes Tarkington Reformatory, upon which Gene is promoted to head warden. In yet another twist of Fate, he’s now an inmate at the same prison he used to be the warden of.
And so it goes.
What’s To Like...
There are no spoilers in the above section; the reader is told all that within the first 4% of the book. The main plot, and Kurt Vonnegut has never been known to pay undue attention to such a thing, is basically Gene telling you how he arrived at his present state of incarceration.
The book is written in the first-person POV (Gene’s), and is mostly stream-of-consciousness with lots of flashbacks. For unknown reasons, Vonnegut spurned writing out any numbers. So: “Vietnam was 1 big hallucination” instead of “one big hallucination”. There are also “code phrases”, such as the titular “hocus pocus” standing for “bullsh*t”. The Griot™ computer program was way kewl. And it was fun to watch the protagonist as he tries to compare the number of people he killed in Vietnam versus the number of women he’s been to bed with.
The writing is of course superb, and there’s the anticipated abundance of Vonnegut wit, although for me, it didn’t seem to sparkle as much as usual. Perhaps this was because the themes in Hocus Pocus – the Vietnam war, the social castes in America, the rich vs. the poor class divisions, the broken-down jail system, etc. – are all familiar Vonnegut subjects.
The book ends with Gene becoming an inmate in his own prison, which is a logical terminus, but I thought it was anti-climactic, since he doesn’t really share any of his experiences from behind bars. But perhaps that’s covered in another one of his late-in-life books, Jailbird, which is sitting on my Kindle, waiting to be read. There are some twists at the end, but they aren’t surprising since Vonnegut/Gene tells us of them several times along the story’s way.
As with all of the author’s books, this is a standalone novel. Although there are some recurring characters in Vonnegut novels, he doesn’t do series. I personally think this is a plus; you don’t miss a thing by not reading them in order.
Kewlest New Word. . .
Absquatulate (v.) : to leave abruptly; to flee; to abscond. (Yankeeism)
At least the World will end, an event anticipated with great joy by many. It will end very soon, but not in the year 2000, which has come and gone. From that I conclude that God Almighty is not heavily into Numerology. (loc. 66)
“Did the letter say why you were named Rob Roy?” I inquired.
“No,” he said. “I assumed it must be because she liked the novel by that name by Sir Walter Scott.”
“That sounds right,” I said. What good would it do him or anybody else to know that he was named for 2 shots of Scotch, 1 shot of sweet vermouth, cracked ice, and a twist of lemon peel? (loc. 3680)
Hocus Pocus sells for $6.47 at Amazon. The rest of Vonnegut’s novels are normally in the $4.99-$9.99 range, but if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll find that Amazon frequently discounts them, one at a time, to $1.99, which is a fantastic price if you have the patience to wait Amazon out. I’ve noticed that Amazon quite often discounts books by deceased writers. I wonder if that’s because the authors are no longer around to protest the pricing policies of their works.
“Plutonium! Now there’s the stuff to put hair on a microbe’s chest.” (loc 2513)
Kurt Vonnegut was born on 11 November 1922 and died on 11 April 2007. He wrote 14 novels over the course of his career, plus a dozen shorter pieces of fiction and 9 works of non-fiction. Hocus Pocus was novel #13, and was published in 1990 when Vonnegut was 68 years old.
It’s not that this is a bad novel; it’s just that there isn’t anything new for anyone who’s read other books by Vonnegut. The main themes enumerated earlier will be already familiar to any inveterate Vonnegut fan; they’re just dressed up with different plot details this time out. Certainly writing about the Vietnam War in 1990 can only be viewed as old hat.
While reading Hocus Pocus, it occurred to me that Vonnegut might have written this to be kind of his swan song. For instance, his Elders of Tralfamadore make a cameo appearance, and they have no literary reason to be here. I even can’t help wondering if the title itself, which we’ve already noted as being code for “Bullsh*t”, isn’t a small, subtle joke by the author to his readers.
7 Stars. Hocus Pocus may not be Vonnegut’s best effort, but it doesn’t change my opinion that he is the greatest American author of the latter half of the 20th century. Don’t agree with me? Name a better choice.