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.

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Reading the Canon – Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus

I have selected Kurt Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus as the first book to cover for my Reading the Canon series.

I went to library and not surprisingly, his more famous works (Slaughterhouse -Five, Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions) were not available. No matter, I haven’t read any of Vonnegut’s books so right now they’re all the same to me. No doubt that will change when I finally get to his other stuff. But, for now, Hocus Pocus it is.

The way Reading the Canon will work is very simple: I will post my thoughts after each chapter. It will be part review, part commentary.

The first RTC posts will be up Friday. I hope you’ll enjoy them!