Reading the Canon – Hocus Pocus, chapters 17-23

Lots of notable quotes this time around. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations!

This section was quite personal. We got to know more of Eugene’s story, including the time after he returned from Vietnam. It’s depressing: he fails an MIT entrance exam and his family doesn’t seem to value him; they went ahead and made big plans to move to Baltimore without his input. Eugene again notes the difference in public perception between WWII – the good war, and all that – and Vietnam, the disgraceful defeat. As a solder in Vietnam, then, his presence serves as a reminder of that national shame (remember last installment in which he mentioned that his service in Vietnam was the real reason he was fired?).

After causing a ruckus at a restaurant (PTSD, perhaps? I’m not aware of how well-known this condition was at the time this book was published), he happens to meet Sam Wakefield, and so begins the process that would land him the teaching job at Tarkington. Wakefield is a tragic figure, as he commits suicide for unknown reasons, but so far he has been perhaps the biggest influence on Eugene.

We (anybody bothered by my using “we”? I do it because I want this to become a group activity of sorts, even if right now it’s just me ranting into the wind) also learn how Tarkington College became Tarkington Reformatory. I’ve been curious about that one. Turns out the college put all its money into Microsecond Arbitrage, a tech company that went under. Business excesses is a recurring theme in this book.

The reason Eugene is now under so much hot water is because when the convicts took the board hostage, Eugene was able to go see them. Upon seeing how he was “treated with deference by the Black man who was actually guarding [him],” the authorities assumed he was the ringleader. Racism is another recurring theme.

Eugene gets a court-appointed lawyer right out of school. Amusingly, he is attempting to get Eugene to agree to plead insanity, based on some of his eccentricities: love of housekeeping, rejection of profanity, and the fact that he has never masturbated.

And…that’s about it. Not much happened aside from some backstory and more details on some minor characters, which is interesting but not interesting enough to mention, and I don’t want to pad this out just for the sake of it. So see ya next time!

Notable quotes:

“If there really had been a Mercutio, and if there really were a Paradise, Mercutio might be hanging out with teenage Vietnam draftee casualties now, talking about what it felt like to die for other people’s vanity and foolishness.”

“It was a racist conclusion, based on the belief that Black people couldn’t mastermind anything. I will say so in court.”

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”– Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations

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Finding the right theme

Ever since I started this blog I’ve changed its look numerous times. Being on a free wordpress.com account, my options are limited, but nonetheless I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying out different, free themes.

However, I think I’ve finally found one I really do like. It’s the Twenty Fifteen theme, with the yellow palette. Doesn’t it look nice? It’s that perfect blend of simple, yet colorful, that I was looking for.

I know changing a blog’s look constantly can get annoying, so I promise this will be the last time I tinker with it for a long time.

Reading the Canon – Hocus Pocus, chapters 10-16

This book goes back and forth between the past and present, often in the same chapter. It was a bit disorienting at first as sometimes I start reading about his time as a teacher at Tarkington and then pivot to another time, then return. I’m used to it now, mostly, but I think it’ll help make things clearer to make a timeline of sorts, based on the information we’ve been given so far.

– Eugene was born in 1940
– His time in Vietnam ended in 1975
– He got the job at Tarkington College in 1975
– He was fired from Tarkington in 1991
– Sometime after this, he went to work at the New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institute at Athena
– Tarkington College became Tarkington State Reformatory in 1999
– Eugene begins working for the Reformatory as a warden
– The prison break occurs sometime in 1999
– Eugene is writing this book in 2001

Okay, so that’s most of the big stuff.

Continue reading “Reading the Canon – Hocus Pocus, chapters 10-16″

Reading the Canon — Hocus Pocus, chapters 4-9

Backstory!

During this stretch we go back to Eugene’s teenage years, to see how he became the person he is at the start of the book. We also learn a whole lot more about the prison break – the event that seems to be the book’s main plot point. Things get even bleaker. But first, let’s go back to Eugene’s early life.

He got decent grades, but didn’t excel academically. He was not a part of any sports teams. He didn’t join any clubs. His main thing was playing with his band, drinking and smoking weed and attempting to get laid. A normal teenager, basically. It’s that normalness, that lack of any extraordinary qualities that will soon help drastically change the course of his life. But first, we have to take a look at his parents.

Eugene’s father was a chemist whose work revolved around attempting to find synthetic materials that could be used to make lighter weapons. After his company is bought by Du Pont, he is unsure of whether he will be laid off or not. Then he gets beat up by the husband of the woman he was having an affair with and has to go around town with a black eye. His mother, of whom we don’t learn much aside from the fact that she is obese, gets a broken nose a couple of days later. To the town, this looks like an unseemly marital squabble.

Once again, it seems like the narrator is giving us interesting but irrelevant information. Not so. This little details will play a monumental role in the bigger events to come. I imagine I’ll keep seeing this narrative technique.

Anyway, because of the embarrassment the family goes through, Eugene’s father decides to enter him in a science fair, hoping to get back some respect from the local community. Of course, he ends up doing all the work for him. The project, something involving crystallography (¯\_(ツ)_/¯), wins the local science fair despite clearly having been made by the father, an experienced chemist, and not the unassuming Eugene. The latter says that they were given first place because the townspeople thought his “little family had suffered enough.”

So they go to Cleveland for the state science fair, where they are quickly exposed as frauds, though the judge decides to ignore them instead of humiliating them any further. It is at this place that Eugene meets one of the men who will change his life: Same Wakefield, Lieutenant Colonel. He’s there trying to get math-inclined youngsters to go to West Point. Eugene is not interested – he has already been accepted to Michigan, but his father changes his plans. Having a son who attends West Point is just the kind of ego and status boost he has been looking for. “I’ve got a son I can be proud of now.”

So Eugene goes off to West Point, along with Jack Patton, brother of Margaret Patton, the woman he will eventually marry. We then get a chapter largely devoted to this time there, and in Vietnam. The book draws a parrallel between Eugene’s disappointment in his country after Nam and his disappointment in his father all those years back at the science fair.

We then return to Tarkington. Eugene gives us another history lesson, to the days when the carillon was mechanized. This ties into a short section on the unfortunate side-effects of mechanization. “Too bad you were born. Nobody has any use for you.”

Then we finally shift to the prison across the lake. I’ve been waiting for this. It was there where he met Alton Darwin, a mass murderer. It is Alton who takes charge once the prison break begins, despite having had nothing to do with it. Eugene says some people came down to free one prisoner, and things soon greatly escalated. Some of the prisoners return to the prison, but Alton and his new followers reach Tarkington and the Valley, where they proceed to cause all sorts of mayhem.

Alton makes his stand at Tarkington, taking the Trustees as hostages. The convicts eat the college’s horses and dogs. Alston is killed while ice-skating by the college president, who had climbed up to the belfry with a rifle.

I may be reading too much into this, but I sense that Vonnegut is attempting to show Alton as a tragic figure. He is clearly a dangerous and damaged individual (Eugene calls him a sociopath), but he was also a victim of things beyond his control – mainly, the drug war and racism. Not to mention the commentary on the disposability of those at the bottom rung of society. At least I think that’s the point he’s trying to make. I could be way off. Let’s read on!

Note: I forgot to mention in the first installment that Eugene has tuberculosis. Damn, his life keeps getting bleaker and bleaker.

Notable quotes:

In Mohiga Valley, their skin alone sufficed as a prison uniform.

During my last year in Vietnam, I, too, reacted at press conferences as though our defeats were victories. But I was under orders to do that. That wasn’t my natural disposition.