Hocus Pocus is a pretty typical Vonnegut book. It’s whimsical, cynical, humorous, compassionate, psychologically and sociologically incisive, hyper-realistic in some respects and surrealistic in others, narrated by a male protagonist who is presumably a stand-in for Vonnegut himself, and lamenting of how royally human beings fuck up anything they involve themselves in. In other words, the usual truth, humor, and oddity.
Hocus Pocus is the story of Eugene Debs Hartke, a college professor who graduated from West Point and went on to fight in Vietnam. The story is set in the near future.
He is fired from his college for being anti-American as the result of a set-up by a student who is the daughter of a Rush Limbaugh-type. He gets a job nearby at a prison.
As part of the continuing privatization of the prison system, this one is owned and operated by a Japanese corporation. It is highly profitable, as prisons in general are a big growth industry, because most jobs have disappeared except jobs involving locking up and guarding those who steal what they need due to the lack of jobs.
This is specifically an African American prison, the Supreme Court having ruled that there is so much race-based animosity and violence in prison that to be placed in an integrated prison is cruel and unusual punishment.
Hartke is accused of being the mastermind behind a prison break, and incarcerated himself. Hocus Pocus is pieced together largely from a journal he writes in prison, giving an account of his life, the America of his times, and what led to his present imprisonment.
With Vonnegut books, I’m inclined to just pick out some of my favorite “I wish I had said that” moments, since his work tends to have a disproportionate number of these. So that’s what I’ll focus on in my remaining remarks here.
Description of military training: “To be put into a soldier suit and turned into a suicidal, homicidal imbecile in 13 weeks.”
Conclusion of a short story about a talking deer who upon his death offers the following assessment of his life and its denouement: “What the blankety-blank was that supposed to be all about?”
A science fiction short story posits that aliens trying to create germs strong enough to survive space travel decide they need as inhospitable an environment as possible in which to breed them so that natural selection makes them maximally tough. So they manipulate the human race into idiotic behaviors that make Earth nearly unlivable, and thus perfect for their purposes:
“It appeared to the [aliens] that the people here would believe anything about themselves, no matter how preposterous, as long as it was flattering. To make sure of this, they performed an experiment. They put the idea into Earthlings’ heads that the whole Universe had been created by one big male animal who looked just like them. He sat on a throne with a lot of less fancy thrones all around him. When people died they got to sit on those other thrones forever because they were such close relatives of the Creator.
“The people down here just ate that up!”
Observation about the Vietnam War, and human nature more broadly: “The Vietnam War couldn’t have gone on as long as it did, certainly, if it hadn’t been human nature to regard persons I didn’t know and didn’t care to know, even if they were in agony, as insignificant. A few human beings have struggled against this most natural of tendencies, and have expressed pity for unhappy strangers. But, as History shows, as History yells: “They have never been numerous!”
Observation about the meaning of one of history’s most potent religious symbols: “The most important message of a crucifix, to me anyway, was how unspeakably cruel supposedly sane human beings can be when under orders from a superior authority.”
All good stuff. I wouldn’t single out Hocus Pocus as one of my favorite Vonnegut books, but I’ve yet to read a single Vonnegut book I didn’t like at least a fair amount, because every one of them has gems like these.