Hocus Pocus (novel)

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Hocus Pocus
First edition hardcover
Author Kurt Vonnegut
Country United States
Language English
Genre Novel
Publisher Putnam Publishing Group
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback) and eBook
Pages 302 pp
ISBN 0-399-13799-8

Hocus Pocus, or What's the Hurry, Son? is a 1990 novel by Kurt Vonnegut.


Like many of Vonnegut's novels, Hocus Pocus uses a non-linear narrative and has a plot centered on a major event heavily alluded to until the final chapters.

The main character is Eugene Debs Hartke, a Vietnam War veteran, college professor, and carillonneur who realizes that he has killed exactly as many people as the number of women he has had sex with. The character's name is a homage to American labor and political leader Eugene V. Debs and anti-war senator Vance Hartke, both from Vonnegut's home state, Indiana.[1]

The main character's name-sharing with Eugene V. Debs, five-time Socialist Party of America candidate for President of the United States (one of his candidacies occurred while he was in prison), is explicitly discussed in the book. The following quote from Eugene V. Debs appears several times: "...while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."

In an editor's note at the beginning of the book, Vonnegut claims to have found hundreds of scraps of paper of varying sizes, from wrapping paper to business cards, sequentially numbered by their author (Hartke) in order to form a narrative of some kind.[2] The breaks between pieces of paper often signal a sort of ironic "punchline". This theme of an episodic narrative and scraps of information is echoed in one recurring feature of the novel, a computer program called GRIOT. By entering the details of a person's life, the user can be given an approximation of what sort of life that person might have had based on the database of lives the program can access. The main pieces of information required for GRIOT to work are: age, race, degree of education, and drug use.

Hartke mentions early on that he is suffering from tuberculosis at the time of his writings, and writes the word "cough" in the text every now and again as well as other descriptors to represent times when he coughed aloud while writing.

Another unusual element of style Vonnegut uses in Hocus Pocus is to consistently use numerals rather than words to represent numbers (e.g. "1" instead of "one" or "1,000,000" instead of "one million"). He explains this in an Editor's Note at the beginning of the book saying "...that numbers lost much of their potency when diluted by an alphabet".

Throughout the novel, Hartke wants to write a list of all the women he has made love to and another list consisting of all those he had killed during the Vietnam War. He becomes fascinated with how large each number will be. At the end of the novel, Eugene says that these numbers are the same and gives a method for calculating the number using other numbers mentioned in the book (e.g., "... the greatest number of children known to have come from the womb of just 1 woman"). The number is 82.

The entire narrative is laced with Eugene's thoughts and observations about the Vietnam war, history, and social conditions, especially class and prejudice.

Like almost all of Vonnegut's books, this is an account told in the past tense by a character who shares his background with Vonnegut. It is also suggested that it mirrors some parts of the Attica Prison riots.

Plot summary[edit]

Eugene is fired from his job as a college professor after having several of his witticisms surreptitiously recorded by the daughter of a popular conservative commentator. Eugene then becomes a teacher at a nearby overcrowded prison run by a Japanese corporation. His employer, and occasional acquaintance, is the prison's warden, Hiroshi Matsumoto. After a massive prison break, Eugene's former college is occupied by escapees from the prison, who take the staff hostage. Eventually the college is turned into a prison, since the old prison was destroyed in the breakout. Ironically, Eugene is ordered to be the warden of the prison, but then becomes an inmate, presumably via the same type of "hocus pocus" that led to his dismissal from his professorship.

On pages 126-127 (as well as pages 155, 160 and elsewhere) Vonnegut heavily implies that his use of the term "hocus pocus" is intended as a euphemism for "bullshit"; throughout the novel Vonnegut's avoidance of profanity (with the express exception of the words "god" and "hell") is excused by his convicton that profanity entitles people who don't want to hear unpleasant information to close their minds to the important underlying message, which can be understood as an allusion to the frequent attempts to ban his books on grounds of obscenity.


  1. ^ Vonnegut, Kurt (2012 Edition). Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. Delacorte Press eBook. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-345-53539-9.
  2. ^ Vonnegut, Kurt (November 1991 Edition). Hocus Pocus. Berkley mass-market edition. p. vii of the Editor's Note. ISBN 978-0-425-13021-6.

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