Vonnegut in Prison and Awaiting Trial : HOCUS POCUS by Kurt Vonnegut (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $19.95; 304 pp.)

The novel is the highest example of subtle interrelatedness that man has discovered. --D. H. Lawrence

Kurt Vonnegut is a friend of mine. He was my teacher at the University of Iowa; he is my neighbor in Sagaponack, Long Island--it is a three-minute bike ride from my house to his. When I moved into my house, he gave me several plants--shrubs, actually; blue hydrangea and purple lilac. They are doing very well, largely because he told me how to care for them. He is a much better gardener than I am, but I am a better cook than he is; I go to his house to admire his bushes, but he comes to my house to eat. Kurt also gave me an interesting wedding present: two very tall and heavy brass candlesticks. He presented them unwrapped with a ribbon tied around just one of them. "Anyone getting married ought to have a pair of these," he said. My wife and I light them and look at them almost every night, and we still don't know what he means. Maybe he means that, if the marriage doesn't work, we are well-armed to clobber each other with the candlesticks; if the marriage does work, we can defend ourselves from our dinner guests.

Kurt and I like each other's writing, but we hardly ever talk shop to each other. He has said some very kind and generous things about my work. I have written about his work before, in the New Republic; frankly, I have not yet grown tired of telling people why I think he is so special.

More than 20 years ago, in an interview, Vonnegut said: "We must acknowledge that the reader is doing something quite difficult for him, and the reason you don't change point of view too often is so he won't get lost, and the reason you paragraph often is so that his eyes won't get tired, so you get him without him knowing it by making his job easy for him." I especially love the "get him without him knowing it" part, but Vonnegut has been almost too successful at that. Among his more stupid readers are those critics who can't tell the difference between easy reading and easy writing; because his books are so easy to read, Vonnegut is accused of "easy" (or lazy) writing. I think you have to be a writer yourself to know how hard it is to make something easy to read--or else you just have to be a little smart.

Vonnegut's subject has always been doomsday, and nobody writes about it better. That he is also so terribly funny in how he describes our own worst nightmare is, of course, another element that confuses his dumber critics; for if doomsday is serious--and the end of our world, as we know it, surely must be--how can Vonnegut be both a serious fellow and a most comic novelist? Well, in his own time, I'm sure, the Immortal Bard of Avon must have confused such critics, too. In a Playboy interview, in 1973, Vonnegut was asked why his books were so popular with younger people; he said: "Maybe it's because I deal with sophomoric questions that full adults regard as settled. I talk about what God is like, what could He want, is there a heaven, and, if there is, what would it be like? This is what college sophomores are into; these are the questions they enjoy having discussed. And more mature people find these subjects very tiresome, as though they're settled." I especially love the "as though they're settled" part, and please note the irony in "full adults."

In "Jailbird" (1979), President Nixon's "special adviser on youth affairs" conceives of this telegram to send to the President:

YOUNG PEOPLE STILL REFUSE TO SEE THE OBVIOUS IMPOSSIBILITY OF WORLD DISARMAMENT AND ECONOMIC EQUALITY. COULD BE FAULT OF NEW TESTAMENT.

And in "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" (1965), the hero, Eliot Rosewater, is described as suffering from the disease of idealism--"it attacks those exceedingly rare individuals who reach biological maturity still loving and wanting to help their fellow men." Vonnegut is similarly afflicted.

He is also highly gifted in the craft of storytelling: While keeping to a single narrator, to a one-person point of view, he yet manages to interweave a half-dozen narrative threads and different periods of time, and a dozen or more major-minor characters; and he conducts this interweaving so seamlessly that he makes his job look easy to stupid readers. To the majority of his readers, who are not at all stupid, Vonnegut manages very difficult material very well.

Now he gives us his 17th book, "Hocus Pocus," a tale told by Lt. Col. Eugene Debs Hartke, the last American to leave Saigon. "I invented justifications for all the killing and dying we were doing, which impressed even me!" Hartke says. "I was a genius of lethal hocus pocus!" Sound familiar?

After the war, Hartke gets and then loses his job at a college for dyslexics--on the surface, he is fired for his sexual escapades with the president's wife, but in truth, he is let go for his cynicism: He erects a display of nonfunctioning perpetual-motion machines in the Science Building and labels them an example of "The Complicated Futility of Ignorance"; he tells students how we lost the Vietnam War. Of himself, Hartke says: "If I were a fighter plane instead of a human being, there would be little pictures of people painted all over me."

Like so many Vonnegut narrators over the years, Hartke is a prisoner facing trial. Howard Campbell in "Mother Night" (1966) is writing from an Israeli jail, awaiting his trial for war crimes; Walter F. Starbuck in "Jailbird" (1979) is a Watergate criminal--after he serves his term, he is found to be a criminal again ("I am a recidivist," he says; so many of Vonnegut's narrators are). But Hartke is not in jail for his crimes in Vietnam. He is facing trial for masterminding a prison break. Vonnegut's criminal narrators may be guilty of much, but they are typically innocent of the crime for which they are charged.

The year is 2001; all prisons are "color-coded," and Hartke, having lost his job at the college for dyslexics, is teaching at an all-black prison when the escape occurs. No one believes that blacks are smart enough to engineer their own escape. That Hartke is charged at all is, he says, "a racist conclusion, based on the belief that black people couldn't mastermind anything. I will say so in court."

The prison is guarded (and run for profit, successfully) by the Japanese; they own most of the United States, at least everything that the Germans don't own. Nobody of any importance uses dollars any more; anything that's worth buying is best paid for with yen. "There I was in late middle age," Hartke says, "cut loose in a thoroughly looted, bankrupt nation whose assets had been sold off to foreigners, a nation swamped by unchecked plagues and superstition and illiteracy and hypnotic TV, with virtually no health services for the poor." Sound familiar?

The Japanese warden at the prison, a witness to and survivor of Hiroshima, tells Hartke: "What a clever trap your Ruling Class set for us. First the atomic bomb. Now this. They looted your public and corporate treasuries, and turned your industries over to nincompoops. Then they had your Government borrow so heavily from us that we had no choice but to send over an Army of Occupation in business suits. Never before has the Ruling Class of a country found a way to stick other countries with all the responsibilities their wealth might imply, and still remain rich beyond the dreams of avarice! No wonder they thought the comatose Ronald Reagan was a great President!" Sound familiar?

While the escaped prisoners are raping and murdering their way through the college for dyslexics, Hartke ruminates on the miraculous good fortune that the college students are away on vacation--just imagine how much more raping and murdering there could have been! He also speculates that the government is likely to bomb both the college town and the prison. Why? "How many Americans knew or cared anyway where or what the Mohiga Valley was, or Laos or Cambodia or Tripoli? Thanks to our great educational system and TV, half of them couldn't even find their own country on a map of the world. Three-quarters of them couldn't put the cap back on a bottle of whiskey without crossing the threads." That's why. Vonnegut is very funny, but he's not kidding. Remember the Alamo? Here is how Vonnegut remembers it: "that the martyrs at the Alamo had died for the right to own black slaves. They didn't want to be a part of Mexico any more because it was against the law in that country to own slaves of any kind."

Is Vonnegut an anti-American? Don't be silly! "I have no reforms to propose," he writes. "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." And furthermore, "All nations bigger than Denmark are crocks of doo-doo." So much for government; as for religion: "The most important message of a crucifix . . . was how unspeakably cruel supposedly sane human beings can be when under orders from a superior authority." As for the conquest of space and the presumed superiority of human beings: "Wanting every habitable planet to be inhabited is like wanting everybody to have athlete's foot." Vonnegut does not worship a single sacred cow--not even "high art" escapes unscathed. "Making the most of the materials of futility," he calls it.

The only precept that Hartke honors is taught to him by his grandfather: "that profanity and obscenity entitle people who don't want inconvenient information to close their ears and eyes to you"; therefore, Hartke's language is squeaky-clean. He also tries to be kind; his illegitimate son is named Rob Roy, after the mixed drink of that name, but Hartke indulges his son's belief that he is named for the novel by Sir Walter Scott. "What good would it do him or anybody else to know that he was named for two shots of Scotch, one shot of sweet vermouth, cracked ice, and a twist of lemon peel?" What good, indeed!

On a personal level, Hartke's failure is as painful as Vietnam; as he awaits his trial, his wife and mother-in-law are in an insane asylum--both of them went crazy in middle age, and now Hartke's children suspect that the same craziness awaits them. "Our children, full-grown now, can never forgive us for reproducing," he says. "What a mess."

What a metaphor! It stands so directly for the national and planetary disaster that we are leaving to our children. Anyone who thinks Vonnegut isn't "serious" is truly full of doo-doo.

"Hocus Pocus" is as good as the best of his novels--these being, in my opinion, "Cat's Cradle" (1963), "Mother Night" (1966), "Slaughterhouse-Five" (1969) and "Jailbird" (1979); although, how long has it been since you've read a first novel as good and prophetically on-target as "Player Piano"? And for the appreciative Vonnegut reader, those crafty Tralfamadorians are back in "Hocus Pocus"; I don't want to spoil the story, but everyone on Tralfamadore knows "that germs, not people, (are) the darlings of the Universe." And those escaped prisoners who rape and murder the faculty of the college for dyslexics, and many poor souls in the college town, guess what they are called: "Freedom Fighters!" Sound familiar?

Vonnegut quotes everyone from Shakespeare to Jean-Paul Sartre to Eugene Debs; unlike most writers, however, he is honest and unpretentious enough to admit his source. "I have lifted this speech from Bartlett's Familiar Quotations," he says (repeatedly). "If more people would acknowledge that they got their pearls of wisdom from that book instead of the original, it might clear the air."

Accordingly, I must confess that I lifted that D. H. Lawrence quote from a little paperback called "The Writer's Quotation Book." I have no idea where Lawrence wrote that business about "subtle interrelatedness"; I suppose I can't really be certain that he did write it. As usual, Vonnegut has helped to clear the air.

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