We are introduced to our narrator and protagonist, Eugene Debs Hartke, named by his grandfather after socialist and labor leader Eugene Debs (one of my historical heroes). We are told that this work was written by Eugene on wrapping paper, business cards, and others scraps. So from the beginning we are to understand that Eugene is an unusual fellow.
Eugene has led an interesting and depressing life. He was ready to go to college to study journalism, though his real dream is to play the blues, “the never-the-same-way-twice music the American black people gave the world.” However, both of these plans are dashed by his father, who sends him to West Point because it would impress the neighbors. Eugene is quite resentful of both his parents.
He was shipped off to Vietnam, where he eventually became a Lieutenant Colonel. After the war he married a woman who failed to tell him about the propensity towards mental illness she had inherited from her mother. In time, both women go insane. Their children, who now have to deal with this unfortunate genetic inheritance, hate them for binging them into the world.
Pretty gloomy stuff, so far. But there is some light. Eugene was hired to teach Physics at Tarkington College, a school for the learning disabled. Most importantly to Eugene, he became the school’s carillonneur. He recalls the times he played the carillon as the happiest of his life, no doubt in part because it helped him scratch his musical itch. It is made clear that Tarkington is a special place to Eugene, the one stabilizing force in his otherwise chaotic life. For now, anyway.
Then, rather suddenly, we learn that after he was a professor he was briefly a warden, after the school became Tarkington State Reformatory. What’s more, he is no longer a warden, as he is awaiting trial for “supposedly having masterminded the mass prison break at the New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institution at Athena, across the lake from here.”
We then pivot in chapter two to a history of the surrounding area. A major part of this history is Aaron Tarkington, an inventor who ran a successful wagon company in the 19th century. He had dyslexia and could neither read or write. His daughters all married well, to prominent families in other part of the country, taking the gene for dyslexia with them and spreading it among the ruling class. Clearly, dyslexia will play a large role in this story soon enough.
As for Aaron’s only son, Elias, he became a mechanic who attempted to create a perpetual motion machine. Didn’t work out, as you might imagine. He was more successful in business, and in his will he left his estate and fortune to be used for the creation of “The Mohiga Valley Free Institute.” The institute, a highly-progressive place that was created to offer education to all, regardless of gender or color, was eventually renamed Tarkington College. This was to please a wealthy relative of the Tarkington’s, who was embarrassed that his dyslexic grandson had to go to such a modest school.
All this seems interesting but irrelevant, until you understand what Vonnegut is getting at. Because of the Tarkington’s rich patrons, Tarkington College did not die like the rest of the area. Construction on railroads and highways began far from the school, leaving the college and Lake Mohiga intact. It was thanks to this that the prisoners of the New York State Maximum Security Adult Correctional Institute were able to cross the frozen lake and head towards the college many, many years later. Everything is connected.
Eugene is already proving to be a guy you want to cheer for, despite his cynical nature. Part of that nature can be explained easily. Life has given him his share of problems and disappointments. He was unable to follow his dreams, he was sent off to Vietnam, his wife went insane, his children hate him for the possibility that they too might go insane, and now he is awaiting trial for masterminding a prison break. And that’s only the first three chapters!
I hope you liked the first installment of Reading the Canon! I hope to be able to have a new RTC post up every couple of days. Hocus Pocus’ chapters are pretty short, so I’ll probably continue to cover it a couple at a time. Thanks for reading this far, and please check back soon!
Notable quote from chapter 1
During that war, which was about nothing but the ammunition business, there was a microscopic possibility, I suppose, that I called in a white-phosphorus barrage or a napalm air strike on a returning Jesus Christ.