More Vonnegut: Hocus Pocus


In Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, it is the second definition of “hocus-pocus” which pertains to the title of this Vonnegut book from 1990. The second definition is: “nonsense or sham used especially to cloak deception.” In this book, Vonnegut undoubtedly relies on his experiences in World War II to construct the character of the protagonist, Eugene Debs Hartke, a veteran of the Vietnam War. Contrary to Vonnegut’s personal experience a as a soldier, however, Hartke was a career military man who rose the ranks to become quite an important cog in the machinery of the U.S. war effort in Southeast Asia, even supervising the final evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Saigon (pictured above).


The protagonist’s name comes, of course, from the famous labor leader/socialist Eugene V. Debs, and an outspoken anti-war “junior senator” from Indiana in the 60’s, Vance Hartke (below). In fact, one of my fellow-members of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club had met Senator Hartke on a couple occasions, describing him as one of the more “oily” politicians he ever encountered, and that Hartke had a habit of, when shaking one’s hand, kind of wrapping his other arm around his ‘victim’ and even changing his stance, thus preventing the recipient from making a quick exit(!)


Part of the hocus-pocus perpetrated is in Hartke’s speaking to the newly arrived “recruits” and in his dealing with the press (likely enhanced by Vonnegut’s own experience working in public relations” for corporate giant, General Electric.)

Hartke’s military experience does not take place during the time frame of the plot of this novel, however, and we learn of it mostly through “flashbacks” and memories. In the novel, we learn that Hartke spent his post-war years teaching at “Tarkington College” in the finger lakes district of New York. After being the victim of a conspiracy he is fired from that post but promptly finds a new job across the lake, teaching at a prison whose administration has been privatized and is now run by the Japanese.

The novel is written by Debs from the prison where he is now an inmate. Among the many quirks of the novel, we are told that it was written in its entirety on small scraps of whatever paper Hartke found available, including matchbook covers, blank endpapers that he had ripped out of books in the prison library, brown wrapping paper, and backs of business cards. The other quirk, which frankly felt a bit gimmick-y to me, was that he would not write out any numbers in the book – e.g. instead of writing “two days later” he would write “2 days later.” I was never quite sure of any value added from this, but have come to expect quirkiness from Vonnegut and suppose at this point I would be disappointed if there weren’t any.

What I did like about this book was the humor that it contained. While Vonnegut is known for his humor, he outdid himself this time. I laughed out loud several times while reading. In one exchange, just after Hartke has been fired and is wandering around town he meets someone who is headed over to the prison for a job interview:

He said, “They’re hiring teachers over there.”
I asked if I could come with him.
He said, “Not if you’re going to teach what I’m going to teach. What do you want to teach?”
“Anything you don’t want to teach,” I said.

Another funny moment is when a minor character asks Hartke if he’d “seen him on “The Phil Donahue Show,” which Vonnegut describes as:

“a 1-hour show every weekday afternoon, which featured a small group of real people, not actors, who had had the same sort of bad thing happen to them, and had triumphed over it or were barely coping or whatever.”


The book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library met to discuss this book last Thursday. Hocus Pocus was one of the more universally liked of our readings, earning an 8.4 rating in our traditional post-meeting informal vote. This is one of the highest ratings I can remember us giving.

Another intriguing component of the novel was the inclusion of a machine galled the “GRIOT,” which was designed to predict the fate of a person after certain basic information was entered into it. The relatively small amount of data needed for input is remarkable too: age, race, degree of education, current level of drug use – are those really the only significant contributors to our fate? While reading, I thought perhaps GRIOT was an acronym for something that the author purposely didn’t explain. The KVMLBC, however, includes in its membership a former literature teacher who informed us that “griot” is a west African world for the conveyor an oral tradition among families, who each would have a member designated as a griot. I think she said that griot was the word used for the stories being told as well. (I always learn something at these meetings) 🙂

We also have among our membership an amateur poet, who usually shares a work – somehow related to our current selection – with us at the end of our meetings. At January’s meeting, one of the other members questioned the poet about the rhyming structure used, and whether it had a name, etc. Apparently, this got our poet thinking, and he tried a new form this month, the “diamanté” poem. Wikipedia describes the form as:

“The poem can be used in two ways, either comparing and contrasting two different subjects, or naming synonyms and antonyms for another subject.

In the poems, the subject is named in one word in the first line. The second line consists of two adjectives describing the subject, and the third line contains three verbs ending in the suffix -ing which are related to the subject. A fourth line then has four nouns, again related to the subject, but only the first two words are related the first subject. The other two words describe the opposite subject the lines then are put in reverse, leading to and relating to either a second subject or a synonym for the first.

Here is the order:








Bill’s poem, which I snapped a picture of with my iPhone (to capture not only the words but the nice, aesthetic presentation) is shown below, with the author’s permission:

Have YOU read Hocus Pocus?  Any other Vonnegut? What do you think of one of Indiana’s finest authors?


  1. Dale said,

    February 27, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    Great information and a great post, Jay! Thanks!


  2. Jay said,

    February 28, 2012 at 8:22 am

    Thanks Dale. Hocus Pocus was a “good one.” 🙂


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