What’s the hurry, son?
Hocus Pocus tells the story of the life of Eugene Debs Hartke, a Vietnam War veteran and a former college professor who, while awaiting trial in prison and dying slowly of TB (cough, cough), considers the final tally of two activities he excelled at throughout his life; the number of people he killed during the Vietnam War, and the number of women he slept with throughout his life. Mild spoiler: the number is the same for both (and it’s pretty high). In his confinement, he scribbles on hundreds of pieces of paper to form a fragmented narrative
The events that occur are always slightly eccentric, and stretch belief – I often find Vonnegut narratives are like fairy tales loosely grounded in reality. In Hocus Pocus, we hear of a prison riot (inspired by the Attica Prison riot in 1971), where the all-black inmates march across a frozen lake and begin opening fire on civilians of the town, taking the professors at a college hostage and even shooting and crucifying a member of the staff. There is a genetic craziness that affects Hartke’s mother-in-law, and eventually Hartke’s wife, and potentially any further women who share the ticking time-bomb genes. A computer program called GRIOT can give an approximation of what sort of life a person may lead based on an existing database of other people, with the variable information needed being: age, race, degree of education, and drug use.
It’s bonkers, but this is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, so it should be expected. In his uniquely satirical way, Vonnegut points a finger at the wrongs, the injustice in the world. Hocus Pocus contains his views on the Vietnam War, the treatment of veteran soldiers, the careless destruction of the environment, the divide between the rich and poor, the state of America’s prisons, and so on. Really, in this novel more than his others, it’s difficult to prioritise one particular theme here. Vonnegut simply does what he does best – he preaches, with sharp humour and ominous warnings, without the patronising superiority and condescension.
That said, Hocus Pocus is not one of Vonnegut’s stronger books. Unlike Slaughterhouse 5, Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan – I think Hocus Pocus, published in 1990 and Vonnegut’s penultimate novel, is for the most part, forgettable. It’s enjoyable, it’s humorous, it’s touching, but unlike the very best he wrote, I haven’t spent a great deal of time thinking over the book since I finished it. Or maybe I have. The beauty of Vonnegut’s stories is that, amongst the despair and suffering and sadness, there is hope and beauty. I like to think the impact of his books never truly leaves your subconscious.