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Hocus Pocus: A Review

And no, I am not talking about the Halloween movie starring Bette Midler as one of the Sanderson sisters. I am talking about Kurt Vonnegut’s 1990 satire, Hocus Pocus about a man, a school and a prison break. Just to let you know that I actually enjoyed the book,  I shall tell you my rating:

4/5 Stars

Hocus Pocus, like many of Vonnegut’s other works, is a brilliant satire that features a veteran of the Vietnam war. The protagonist is telling us his story from prison (no spoilers, you get that within the first couple of pages) and we, the audience, become players in his story. Perhaps we are fellow soldiers, or students at Tarkington (the school he teaches at) or maybe townies. Perhaps we are even fellow inmates in a prison separated by race. Who knows?

One thing I love about Kurt Vonnegut is his ability to jump in and out of a scene, using digressions that refer back to some other story or will have meaning later on in the plot. Everything has meaning. This is true for all of the works I have read for Vonnegut and as we see the narrator and protagonist, Eugene Debs Hartke, we find that even the smallest things hold meaning to him. And, for some reason, they hold meaning to us. Hartke is a veteran, a Jazz pianist, a teacher and an adulterer, he has lived through hard times but tells his story in an almost disinterested way, as though he was merely a witness to his life, not a participant.

Vonnegut tells this story the way one might hear an older person speak at a home. What I mean is, how when someone who hasn’t had the opportunity to say anything gets a chance to talk, they try to do all of their talking in one sitting. The narration is unique in the way that you never get a full story at one time. You may get a part of it on page twenty-three and another on page forty-six and yet another on page 102. But I wasn’t upset with it because the stories between those pages were interesting in themselves. We learn he is in prison early on but it sin’t until much later that we learn that the prison was separated by race. We learn he has a bit of a sex addiction but you don’t know how bad it is until the final page. Every single paragraph is interesting.

If everything is interesting, why didn’t you give it 5/5? Why, that is a good question. Maybe I was trying to compare it to other works but something about Hocus Pocus didn’t quite satisfy my bookish needs. Or maybe it was because I had so many questions left. No, I do not believe an author needs to answer every question they pose but something about this Vonnegut novel left me unhappy. I was not quite sure what it was when I finished and am still a bit unsure. I loved some of the quotable moments in it, I enjoyed the characterization, I laughed at the satire but it just wasn’t enough. Mind you, this is my personal opinion and you may rate it 100/5 but I just couldn’t do it.

But I still love Kurt Vonnegut!!


Another thing I both love and hate is Hartke is his fascination with lists. Throughout the narrative we hear him discussing two lists: a lists of all the people he has killed and a list of all the women he has slept with. Seemingly random, these two lists act as an anchor when digressions go on for a bit too long, they pull us back in and at the end we even are allowed to know the number, that is if you have been paying attention. It is one small thing that pays off in a big way, it gives closure to a story that almost feels as though it could go on forever. Hartke could keep talking about his time in Vietnam or his lunatic of a wife and mother-in-law, he could tell us about the school for the rich kids nobody else wants to deal with or the trustees that fired him. Perhaps he could name each prisoner and tell us about their stories, their last words, their dreams or why a prison in the middle of nowhere was ran by a Japanese company. Maybe he could bring up when and how he was diagnosed with a disease that causes him to cough incessantly. But no, the story ends and he leaves us to our own stories, to our own worlds to wait until the excrement hits the air conditioning.

“Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn’t mean we deserve to conquer the Universe.”

~Eugene Debs Hartke

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