A Doomsayer in Paradise : Books: Kurt Vonnegut paints a bleak portrait of 20th-Century American society. ‘Hocus Pocus,’ his latest novel, is filled with moral outrage about the ‘ruling class.’


Kurt Vonnegut is sitting poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel, talking about the destruction of the species.

Not the species in the immediate environs--the healthy-to-the-teeth Hollywoodians in bathing trunks and sun-back dresses who are hooked to cream-colored telephones like large bronzed fish hanging onto tasty bait.

By mid-morning, the patio’s pastel peach booths have become ersatz office suites, murmurous with deals. Occasionally, a polite splash stirs silver-gilt wavelets in the aquamarine swimming pool.

Playing his usual role of dour curmudgeon, Vonnegut appears in the scene as a doomsayer in paradise. Shaggy-headed among the perfectly pruned orbs of hibiscus trees, he is perspiring in his visiting-Easterner khaki trousers and long-sleeved shirt. After a stoic 10 minutes he has predictably given up on the sports jacket, draping it over the back of the banquette.


“God himself is not a great conservationist,” he begins to snort. “Look at this. If the desert was so great, why did they do this?”

Still it’s more than the topiaries and suntans that have got the author in a funk. Vonnegut is more pessimistic than ever about the future of the planet.

“I just don’t think life is very funny anymore. . . . You come to hate life and that’s bad.

“But here I am at the pool. . . .” The Vonnegutian irony of his situation sets off a chain of deep, croaking, smoker’s-cough chuckles.

Visibly successful as a veteran critic of Homo sapiens follies, Vonnegut acknowledges, “I’m one of the best-known writers in the world.”

And now he’s come to Hollywood to make some lucrative picture deals. The English movie company Handmade Films, headed by former Beatle George Harrison, has optioned his 1973 novel “Breakfast of Champions,” Showtime/The Movie Channel is producing half a dozen of his short stories for cable television syndication, and he’s lunching with a representative from Turner Network Television to discuss narrating a feature film on the environment.

Furthermore, his 13th novel, “Hocus Pocus,” is being published by G.P. Putnam this week. Typically, it’s chock full of moral outrage, this time against what he terms “the ruling class.”

Set in the year 2001, the book satirizes social conditions in late 20th-Century America, using the metaphors of a burgeoning prison population and the stagnant student body of a school for the mentally disabled progeny of the country’s business barons. The protagonist, Eugene Debs Hartke, is alternately part of the two institutions, which face each other across an abysmal valley and eventually collide.

Hartke, who is the purported author of the book, writes on available scraps of paper, denoted in the novel by lined-off narration, which allows Vonnegut freewheeling commentary on everything from the evacuation of personnel from the American Embassy in Saigon (Hartke is a Vietnam veteran) to the fact that he has killed exactly as many people as he has had sex with, a coincidence that causes him to question his atheism.

The central theme of the book, however, is “the tail-end of imperialism,” which Vonnegut believes is represented by the descendants of the Anglos “who conquered this part of the world which became the United States.”

According to his thesis, these heirs to imperialism get tired of trying to manage all their property and the increasingly prison-prone population. So when the cash-heavy Japanese come along, they readily sell out rather than continue to take responsibility for the nation.

“What I say is that they revealed themselves to be no more patriots of where they live than did the British who took over Rhodesia or the Belgians who took over the Congo or the Portuguese who took over Mozambique,” says Vonnegut.

The author is speaking of America’s white male conservatives, whom he sees as imperialists in their own country. “For them, the blacks and Hispanics are not their brothers and sisters.

“Most of us are not descended from people who came from the British empire” and do not fit into a hierarchy based on the British class system, he maintains. “It’s quite exasperating. This totally alien idea has been transferred to this country. The lower social orders are parasites; the people at the top with the nice manners are the most highly evolved animals so far.

"(But) the American scheme is dependent on our seeing all of us as brothers and sisters.” Despite such passionate oratory (Vonnegut is a frequent speaker on college campuses. “I go into exhibitionistic overdrive,” he quips), he has no particular solution for social reform. “I simply look in astonishment at what people do.”

As a novelist, he has been looking at society and commenting on it since his first book, “Piano Player,” appeared in 1951, predicting the consequences of automation in the business world. In his two best-known works, “Slaughterhouse Five” (1969) and “Cats Cradle” (1963), disparate destruction comes by fire and ice: the American World War II bombing of Dresden (Vonnegut was held prisoner in a slaughterhouse during the city’s holocaust) and the freezing of the Earth’s waters. Later, in “Galapagos” (1985), he muses on man as an evolutionary failure.

Now Vonnegut is worried about losing his sense of humor. In past months he has noted that he no longer felt like making jokes and described “Hocus Pocus” as “a sardonic fable in a bed of gloom.”

Indeed, in past years, critics have sporadically remarked that Vonnegut’s disenchantment was losing its punch. Reviewing “Deadeye Dick” in 1982, the Washington Post’s chief literary critic, Jonathan Yardley, called him “the bard of flower power,” linked to the decade of the 1960s, while a Chicago Tribune review by English professor and critic John W. Aldridge speculated that his last novel, “Bluebeard” (1987), signaled “a new and vital phase of his career” after a post-'60s slippage of humor.

Vonnegut shrugs off these observations. The tumble from amused observer to anguished moralist has been the fate of other American humorists--Mark Twain, James Thurber and Ambrose Bierce, he comments self-comfortingly.

He concedes, however: “I realize I’m taking life too seriously and that this is a mistake. It’s a form of humorlessness to believe that the United States can be made into a kind of Utopia, or that white-collar criminal activity matters. It doesn’t matter to most people.

“It’s a very numb society right now and I’m feeling too much. It’s foolish. It’s high school all over again. In high school I would be writing and athletes would say, ‘Come on and have some fun. It’s all too serious what the student council is doing.’ ”

Nonetheless, Vonnegut is weary of unfriendly conservatives who, he says, paint a picture of him as a heretically “gloomy Gus, as if that’s no way for an American to be. All I’ve done is paid attention to the evidence.”

Vonnegut began paying attention to science and sociology as the child of Midwestern intellectuals of German stock who entertained ideas of an ideal American society. Raised in Indianapolis, he studied chemistry at Cornell University and earned an M.A. in anthropology at the University of Chicago, while his older brother, Bernard, became a physicist.

Since these student days, Vonnegut has been friends with scientists and has been listening to what they say about the environment. “We’ve turned the whole place into an Auschwitz,” he declares.

Based on what he hears about the atmosphere, the water, the topsoil, Vonnegut forecasts “the destruction of larger animals” will be occurring soon. “I would say 100 years is a long time for us to last. But people were saying this in the age of the Pharaohs; they were making a living saying the world was about to end. Except we have some pretty decent evidence now.”

While his scientific friends discuss the world’s end dispassionately, Vonnegut continues to sound the alarm against self-annihilation for a young readership composed principally of high-school and university students.

“I influence people when they have no immune system against ideas,” he says. “Then they achieve power. They become president of the chamber of commerce or President of the United States.

“John F. Kennedy was obviously a product of the books he read when he was young. We all are.”

Vonnegut’s influence and caring have flourished, he acknowledges, in the ease of a free and prosperous society.

“Most people find life so hard and themselves so disappointing that they don’t care whether (the world) ends or not.”

Vonnegut, on the other hand, owns a four-story townhouse in Manhattan--with a “three-windows-wide” view of the East River, he specifies--and a weekend home in pricey, pastoral Bridgehampton, Long Island, where he enthusiastically gardens (“I just got into Brussels sprouts . . . and had great luck with broccoli.”)

He has seven children: three by his first wife, three adopted relatives and a 7-year-old daughter, Lily, adopted by Vonnegut and his second wife, photographer Jill Krementz.

Adam Smith-style capitalism has been good to him (“I wrote my books, put them on the market and became well known”), and Malcolm Forbes, whom Krementz regularly photographed, makes a cameo appearance in Vonnegut’s new novel with his Harley motorcycle gang, wearing crash helmets decorated with dollar signs.

In a Franklin Library limited edition of “Hocus Pocus,” the frontispiece will picture a Forbes-like biker accompanied by an Elizabeth Taylor-type in the buddy seat.

As for business around the Beverly Hills swimming pool, Vonnegut allows his pleasure to break through the cosmic gloom. He congenially swaps tennis pointers with a noted scriptwriter, waves to a director or two, and sounds unabashedly ebullient about the prospects of a film being produced from his work. “It’s always exciting to have a movie made,” he says with a full-sun grin. “It’s like a nice party.”