(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Hocus Pocus is perhaps Vonnegut’s grimmest and most powerful indictment of Americans and American life, indicative of why fifteen years later he would title his collection of essays A Man Without a Country. This novel is set in 2001, enabling Vonnegut a decade earlier to project his vision of what America would soon become. What he sees is revealed by his first-person narrator, his typical war veteran; this time, it is a veteran of the Vietnam War—fittingly for this novel, America’s most humiliating military venture. The narrator is presented as the last person to leave by helicopter from the top of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, and the experience enables him to emerge from this personal underground a changed man, convinced that all pro-war propaganda is “hocus pocus,” of which he was an admitted master as a military spokesman himself and dedicated to trying to tell the truth, without self-serving deception.

What America has become in the near future is a schizophrenic, disintegrating world, symbolized both by the college for the wealthy but learning-disabled where the narrator finds postwar employment and by the prison for impoverished and uneducated minorities directly across a lake from the college. The U.S. Supreme Court has reinstituted segregation, at least in prisons, and while the number of learning-disabled wealthy students has remained a constant number at three hundred, the prison population has grown constantly, to ten thousand. Also, America is basically under absentee ownership, having been sold bit by bit to foreign nations and individuals by wealthy Americans who “take the money and run,” unwilling to be responsible for America’s future. Race-and class-based uprisings are prevalent, including in the South Bronx, and...

(The entire section is 726 words.)