Asbestos Linings Playbook

…The restored perpetual motion devices demonstrated not only how quickly anything on Earth runs down without steady infusions of energy. They reminded us, too, of craftsmanship no longer practiced in the town below. Nobody down there in our time could make things that cunning and beautiful.

Yes, and we took the 10 machines we agreed were the most beguiling, and we put them on permanent exhibit in the foyer of this library underneath a sign whose words can surely be applied to this whole ruined planet nowadays:


-Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus

Being overly literal never helped anyone, but I always imagine words (should they demand to be eaten) would taste mildly metallic; perhaps like tapwater at a railway station that rubs your better judgement the wrong way.

For instance, I am a sporadic fan of Kurt Vonnegut and enjoy debating more gainfully employed people about the relative merits of Cat’s Cradle as his magnum opus (Slaughterhouse-Five felt a bit more inevitable, though no less urgent. The jury’s still out on Breakfast).

The word ‘sporadic’ here does not reflect a waxing or waning of interest. The writer’s jet black humor and near-prophetic insight simply get hard to endure in larger doses.

I finished reading Hocus Pocus a couple of days ago and the inside of my mouth still tastes like copper.

Here is a book that eschews the elements his writing has taken flak for – metafictionality, crude language, illustrations – and instead tells a straightforward story with few digressions.

The year is 2001 as seen from 1991. Vonnegut’s current mouthpiece for his bipolar standup, Eugene Debs Hartke, is holed up in the well-stocked library of a maximum-security prison (formerly an affluent college), scribbling the fragments of his autobiography on any scrap of paper he can find, awaiting his turn at trial or death by tuberculosis (whichever comes first).

He is also the last American soldier to escape the theater of war at Vietnam.

The revelation is made on the very first page of the narrative. The references remain offhand for the most part. But we see the narrator flail interminably like a wounded glacier, see him fit into society without an inner life to speak of, see him rattle off the definition and warning symptoms of sociopathy without a hint of irony.

His big, overarching project is to chronicle all the women he has known carnally. He suspects the number to be exactly equal to his legitimate kills in combat. We suspect both numbers matter as much to him as a crock of doo-doo.

I was reminded of Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski

“Have you ever heard of Vietnam? You’re entering a world of pain, son!”

– except the latter’s PTSD makes him connect everything to Vietnam, whereas Eugene’s particular impairment remains more implicit.

The man we meet at the start of the story is not the one we’ve come to know by the end, but on the off chance you approach this novel in terms of plot I will divulge no further details.

Vonnegut is that rare writer who shares my love for pejoratives – the more vulgar and unsociable the better. Most fiction uses the F-Bomb as shorthand for characters gasping at the magnitude of a less-than-optimal situation; but here is a man who has gleefully advised people to take a flying fuck at the mooooooooooooon on more than one occasion.

Eugene Hartke, by stark contrast, never swears – not in his life, let alone his schizoid autobiography.  He believes swearing and blasphemy give most people the right to stop listening to whatever’s being said, regardless of how urgent it might be.

What we get to witness is a gifted writer reining in his customary leaps of imagination so he can remain lucid; a rational man with a lot to be angry about.

Hocus Pocus is as much about race as the oppression of the working class, as much about wealth disparity as the killing fields at ‘Nam, as much an indictment of human nature as the societal impulses that shape us.

And despite all that it is an incredibly funny book.

Each fragment ends with what would be a punchline in a lesser work. To tell you the context would spoil the gag, but you will have to laugh like hell.

“The war did that to you.” “Who knows?”

The only illustration is this drawing of a tombstone that recurs two or three times.

Hartke’s obsession with epitaphs is more ubiquitous, although he is too familiar with death for its frequent incursions into the narrative to merit more than a passing mention.

A ton of incongruous themes are pulled taut and tuned like guitarstrings; in the final act Vonnegut simply stops practicing licks and cuts loose. The closing chapter ties everything together while poking fun at the novelist’s own Humanist concerns, and the last line could be carved into the side of a mountain as famous last words for our entire species.

One is compelled to think of the approaching end to KV’s novelistic career: he had dropped the Junior at the end of his name because that’s what his kids called him behind his back, and the America he lived in was a far cry from the one where he’d grown up.

Q – What, then, is a writer to do?

Ans – The same old hocus pocus.

This is not the finest book I have ever read. To call it the easiest read would be equally hyperbolic. But this is the one I will be pushing most urgently upon strangers as they kick me into the nearest gutter and run away.

You have been warned.

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