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 gasoline is so scarce and expensive that it is to be found only in semisecret locations.
In his role as teacher of physics, the narrator attempts to expose the overweening pride and abysmal ignorance that have generated much of the disintegration of America, both represented by the failed perpetual motion machine created by the college’s founder and prominently placed in the foyer of the college’s library, proof of blind faith in technological solutions by humans who are, in the words of the narrator’s dead war buddy, “1,000 times dumber and meaner than they think they are.” The narrator’s efforts only get him fired as a college teacher, though, with the firing orchestrated by a college trustee who is a conservative television talk-show host and whose daughter uses the technology of voice recording to take the narrator’s statements out of context and thereby convict him of anti-American teaching. As the narrator notes, a history professor at the college says much worse but only about the distant past; however, the narrator, Eugene Debs Hartke (aptly named), talks about America’s present inequalities, injustices, and delusional destructiveness.
After being fired, the...
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