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

September 02, 1990|John Irving | Irving's most recent novel, his seventh, is "A Prayer for Owen Meany . " He has just completed a screenplay of his sixth novel, "The Cider House Rules," and an original screenplay, "Son of the Circus." He is at work on his eighth novel. and

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:


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?

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