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Summary

Eugene Debs Hartke (named after the famous early 20th century Socialist working class leader) describes an odyssey from college professor to prison inmate to prison warden back again to prisoner in another of Vonnegut's bitter satirical explorations of how and where (and why) the American dream begins to die. Employing his characteristic narrative device - a retrospective diary in which the protagonist retraces his life at its end, a desperate and disconnected series of events here in Hocus Pocus show Vonnegut with his mask off and his rhetorical devices unshielded.

Debs (and Vonnegut) see academia just as imprisoning as the corrupt penal system and they regard politics as the furnishing and marketing of lies. Debs, already disillusioned by circumstance, quickly tracks his way toward resignation and then fury. As warden and prisoner, Debs (and the reader) come to understand that the roles are interchangeable; as a professor jailed for "radical" statements in the classroom reported by a reactionary student, he comes to see the folly of all regulation.

The "hocus pocus" of the novel's title does not describe only the jolting reversals and seemingly motiveless circumstance which attend Debs' disillusion and suffering, but also describe the political, social, and economic system of a country built upon can't, and upon the franchising of lies. At 68, Vonnegut had not only abandoned the sentiment and cracked optimism manifest in Slaughterhouse-Five, he had abandoned any belief in the system or faith for its recovery. This novel is another in a long series of farewells to the farmland funeral rites of childhood.

©1990 Kurt Vonnegut (P)2015 Audible Inc.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 09-12-17

Fun, zany and worth the read!

Any Vonnegut fan will love this work. Any non Vonnegut fans should read more Vonnegut books. Many "Easter eggs" and a wealth of wisdom for all humanity. Fun, zany and worth the read.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 10-07-17

One of Vonnegut's absolute best.

Simply put, If you love or merely like Kurt Vonnegut you will feel the same about Hocus Pocus. The narration is also excellent for this audio book.

7 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • Darwin8u
  • 28-12-17

The complicated futility of ignorance

"The truth can be very funny in an awful way, especially as it relates to greed and hypocrisy."
- Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus

Having read Timequake prior to reading Hocus Pocus (these are his last two novels), I was glad I reveresed the order. While I wasn't blown away by 'Hocus Pocus', it was moderately better than 'Timequake'. Hocus Pocus was a bit wide at the hips. Vonnegut was covering a lot of ground with this novel. He was looking at issues of race, war, economics, politicis, education, money, culure, prison reform, ptsd, marriage, death, intimacy, and more. There were a lot of little punches by Vonnegut, but none were knockouts.

Two of the idiocycracies in this book: 1) no swearing. Vonnegut's narrator, aka the 'Preacher' is an teacher, warden, and former Vietnam War officer, who is known as the "Preacher" because he doesn't ever swear, so Vonnegut mutes his language. 2) No numbers written as numbers. So, instead of writing "one friend", Vonnegut's narrator writes "1 friend". It all seems a bit forced and contorted for Vonnegut. I prefer my KV unplugged a bit more.

A couple of my favorite Vonnegut quotes from this novel:

-- "Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance."

-- "[M]an was the weather now. Man was the tornadoes, man was the hailstones, man was the floods."

-- "I think any form of government, not just Capitalism, is whatever the people who have all our money, drunk or sober, sane or insane, decide to do today."

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

-- "It’s misleading for people to read about great successes, since even for middle-class and upper-class white people, in my experience, failure is the norm. It is unfair to youngsters particularly to leave them wholly unprepared for monster screw-ups and starring roles in Keystone Kop comedies and much, much worse."

10 of 14 people found this review helpful

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  • Mike Movius
  • 03-10-17

Loopy

What a funny story! I love the way Kurt looped back around with almost every “fact” he disclosed. He touched on so many issues and moral questions in such a matter of fact way, and yet they were humorous. A great read!

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Joe Kraus
  • 06-08-18

Vonnegut Imitating Vonnegut

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the parallels I see between Hemingway and Vonnegut. Each survived the trauma of his war, and each went on to find a new way to write literature. I have not, historically, thought of Vonnegut as anywhere near Hemingway’s level, but I’m slowly reconsidering that.

My basic insight into Vonnegut, courtesy of re-reading Slaughterhouse Five several months ago, is that we see his trauma expressed in narrative. For Hemingway, trauma showed itself at the level of the sentence. You could feel the effort it took to write each one, with the result that each was powerful and fragile; each made it clear how close it came to never having been written. That’s the Hemingway power: the stark beauty of each sentence implied an emotional violence that was below surface-level. (That’s a reference to his famous notion of a story, like an iceberg, being 6/7s underwater.)

In Vonnegut’s case, it’s not a matter of the sentence. He comes close to having logorrhea. Instead, it’s that he dances around his story. He lets us see that he thinks there’s something demeaning in turning his trauma into narrative. Once such an experience becomes a story, it gets cheapened. If it never becomes a story, though, it vanishes as if it never happened. So there’s that perpetual anguish in his best work. He fights the impulse to turn experience into linear narrative, and then he fights the impulse to see his stories resolve themselves in conventional ways.

Anyway, I just might try to develop that notion into an academic paper someday, but reading this late Vonnegut for the first time brings to mind another parallel with Hemingway. I have sometimes heard late Hemingway described as “Hemingway imitating Hemingway.” I’ve never known exactly what that was supposed to mean, but I felt – whatever it meant – it applied to things like “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and “Old Man and the Sea.”

I think now, at last, that I finally understand that notion: the best Hemingway gives evidence of the trauma behind its making. The work bears the evidence of the effort it took to carve out each sentence. It feels like a coin toss whether it’s author could have survived to write it.

By late Hemingway, though, that effort has worn smooth. Hemingway knows how his own work is supposed to feel. He knows he wants short, tight sentences, and he knows he wants a protagonist who can’t voice his deepest emotions. Those late stories get to how Hemingway is supposed to sound, but they give evidence of skipping the hardest part of the creative passage. They no longer have the residue of the deep emotional work it took for Hemingway to get himself to write sentences in the first place.

Here, for Vonnegut in Hocus Pocus, I think the same thing is happening. This is Vonnegut imitating Vonnegut. He does it reasonably well, but his material coheres too quickly into a focused narrative. We get strands that start to shape themselves – our protagonist, Eugene Debs Hickey, lets us know right away the nature of his being held in jail on charges he helped lead a prison revolt – and then they fall apart. SPOILER: For instance, we never learn the outcome of his trial, even though it’s the original structure around which the narrative is built. Instead, this ends on what feels a lot like a digression, on his meditations around the death of a relatively minor character who has almost nothing to do with the revolt. Our narrator even tips his hand, clumsily, a few chapters before the end, telling us he’s learned of a death that marks the end of his story, but withholding whose it was until another 20 pages.

This isn’t an awful book, but it’s certainly not top tier Vonnegut. Like Hemingway, he produced his best work in a concentrated period – 1963-1969, with Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, and Slaughterhouse Five. Before that, he was finding his voice. After, with stretches of exception, he was imitating that best work, giving us the form that his trauma took, but unable again to work through the second-level trauma of writing into the unknown of his deepest personal hurt.

I suspect I’ll keep re-reading Vonnegut. I thought I knew him when I was a teenager – in some ways he was the first adult novelist I ever really wrestled with – and now I find I’m meeting him in a whole new way today. Even a book like this makes me admire something like Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse Five all the more.

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  • Andrew J Weller
  • 06-08-18

Classic Vonnegut

Vonnegut is known for weaving intricate plots full of satire and commentary. This is one of the best examples I've seen of this so far. It moves from the main story to an aside, to another side, back to the main story. Back and forth, forwards and backwards. It draws you in deeper and deeper into the tangled plot. It is dark comedy at its best.

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  • Aggressive Joe
  • 06-08-18

It's not a Slaughterhouse Five, but still fun.

I think this is an overlooked title from Kurt. He was in full form and still a ton of fun with this book. I mowed through it very quickly.

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  • Christian Crawford
  • 06-08-18

I had to laugh like hell

This is my second or third experience with Vonnegut and I think I'm growing accustomed to him and his stories. There's always this certain wackiness that comes along with a Vonnegut story and I appreciate the dry and witty humor throughout.

It's a quick listen and it's fun for what it is. LJ Ganser did a great job with the narration.

I got this from a recent sale, but I definitely recommend if you can get it at a decent price!

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  • Metaphorical 1
  • 12-07-18

Vonnegut Rocks!

There's no peer for Vonnegut. Brilliant, wise, sarcastic, whimsical, ironic, and just so accurate and compelling in his social commentary.