Written in 1990, Hocus Pocus may be considered one of Vonnegut’s “later” works, his most famous stuff having been written in the 1960s and 1970s. But the book still has a particular staying power, even if reading it in 2008 makes it seem somewhat antiquated, as though Vonnegut was still writing a 1960s novel in 1997.
The story of Hocus Pocus revolves around the character of Eugene Debs Hartke, Vonnegut’s portmanteau of a famous socialist and a famous anti-war Senator. To describe the basic plot of Hocus Pocus in the crudest and simplest of terms, Eugene is a man to whom shit happens. More importantly, this shit happens entirely because of Time and Luck, two capital-letter forces whose influence is both pervasive and undeniable.
Most of the book is told in flashback form, with contemporary circumstances being revealed both immediately and mysteriously. Hartke, narrating from a university-turned-prison, intermingles stories of his childhood—the embattled relationship with his father, his father’s embattled relationship with his mother—with stories of his adult life—notorious promiscuity, a (what else?) disheartening view of war, specifically in Vietnam, and his eventual move to Tarkington college in upstate New York. It’s a story ostensibly told on sequentially-numbered scraps of paper, a mode that is both a believable plot devices and the perfect narrative style for Vonnegut, whose stories jump around more than frightened crickets.
Hartke, like a lot of Vonnegut’s protagonists, and like Vonnegut himself, are cynics: Hartke says “I see no harm in telling young people to prepare for failure rather than success, since failure is the main thing that is going to happen to them.” This is the sort of sentiment that eventually gets him fired as “unamerican”1. And yet, when bad things inevitably happen (and don’t they always?), Hartke is suitably stoic, shrugging them off with a practiced and world-weary insouciance.
Vonnegut’s story in this case is like a knot being tied, continually doubling back over itself, looping through its own holes, and every so often stretching the narrative to the point of knots. I was surprised&mash;though perhaps I should not have been—how well Vonnegut makes this narrative flow, even as it revisits the same “frames” to fill them out with more information. It is some of his best character-building that I’ve ever read, and that’s saying a lot for Vonnegut. That being said, I think the plot was a little weak and listless—at least in the context of a reader looking for a story, Hocus Pocus was to some degree a merely list of disjointed events held together by their participants. But then, too, the “shit happens” motif is only underscored by this approach to the storytelling. I suppose it’s difficult for me to judge whether this choice of Vonnegut’s was purposely abstruse or accidentally boring, though isn’t it funny how very fine that line is?
While I don’t like Hocus Pocus as much as some of Vonnegut’s other works—Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five, for instance—it’s still trademark Vonnegut, both wacky and introspective. He was a storyteller par excellence, and this book is no exception to his fabulous canon.
- Actually, this firing came under the guise of his inappropriate sexual conduct, insofar as he took most of the women in Scipio, the small college town, out for a roll in the bushes.[↩]