The hero of Vonnegut's latest dark comic fable is one Eugene Debs Hartke, a Hoosier, former Vietnam hero and college professor, who in the year 2001, in an America virtually owned and operated by the Japanese, is awaiting trial for his role in a bloody prison escape. Hartke's first-person narration is a deceptively plain-spoken mix of ingenuousness and irony.
In what he calls "a gallows speech," Hartke jots down his recollections, Ping-Ponging through the incidents in his life, shooting off on historical sidelights: "I make no apologies for having been zapped during my darkest days in high school. Winston Churchill was bombed out of his skull on brandy and Cuban cigars during the darkest days of WW II."
Hocus Pocus shares, to an extent, the flaws that have marked Vonnegut's recent work: The events seem random, the characters flimsy, the tone weary. The sense of wonder that once balanced the author's cynicism has dissipated. Still, Hocus Pocus is more enjoyable than any Vonnegut novel in years. (Putnam, $21.95)