Kurt Vonnegut Twofer – Hocus Pocus and Look at the Birdie

I’m going to assume that you, dear reader, have not read any Vonnegut. Because if you have, all I need to say about these two books is that if you enjoyed the other Vonnegut works you read, you’ll enjoy these too.

Maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe you need to have enjoyed a certain aspect of Vonnegut’s writing style.

Sometimes Vonnegut will start the story by telling how it ends. Sometimes he will tell the reader exactly which character is going to die and when. His characters are never perfect – more often than not they are miserable and despicable. Vonnegut lays their hopes, dreams, and sins on the table. A Kurt Vonnegut main character is a shining light set on dim. I sometimes forget how refreshing it is to read Kurt Vonnegut.

There is an honesty and frankness in Vonnegut’s storytelling that is irresistible. To enjoy a Vonnegut book is to appreciate the imperfection of life – and to get on living it.

If you have read Vonnegut, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you liked his dark wit, the clever ways he implies “Hey, life sucks, but it could be worse” on every page, than you will enjoy Hocus Pocus.

Hocus Pocus is about a Vietnam Veteran that has gone to teach at a liberal college for the idiot children of rich people. He is writing the story from a prison tower because he has been charged with helping the prisoners from across the lake escape and reek havoc on the town. As usual, the book is both a great story and a biting satirical comment on the world we live in. And Vonnegut is on point with this one.

For those that have not read Vonnegut, don’t look for a protagonist to root for or a tale of triumphs and tribulations. If you’re reading Vonnegut for the first time, be prepared to question your beliefs. The light at the end of the tunnel may be an oncoming train.


Look at the Birdie is a collection of short stories. The stories are excellent, but like the last book of Vonnegut’s short stories I read (Armageddon in Retrospect – review forthcoming, I promise), I was left wanting more. As I said, the stories are excellent, but I wouldn’t take Look at the Birdie over Hocus Pocus. It’s probably not fair to compare a collection of short stories to a novel, but this is a two-for review, so I have to do a bit of comparison.

Basically, if you haven’t read any Vonnegut and had to choose one over the other, ask yourself which you would rather – easing your way into Vonnegut (Look at the Birdie) or jumping in with both feet (Hocus Pocus). But don’t think about that for too long. I can pretty much guarantee that you will enjoy both.

Up next: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter


Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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