The United States has a poet laureate but so far has neglected to name a pessimist laureate. Let me be the first to nominate Kurt Vonnegut for the honor. He is our most distinguished and indispensable grouch. He will soon turn 68, about the age at which Mark Twain wrote The Mysterious Stranger, his darkest and bitterest work. Hocus Pocus, Vonnegut's 13th novel, is his darkest and bitterest work. Vonnegut doesn't agree with his fellow Midwesterner about the human race. He doesn't think it is an idle invention of the devil. He thinks it is a stupid, self-sabotaging infestation, a dim-witted plague. But his new satire shares with Twain's 90- year-old one a perfection of pessimism that could be attained only by a thoroughly thwarted optimist.
The year is 2001. The United States is in even worse shape than it had been 10 years earlier, when it was a ''looted, bankrupt nation whose assets had been sold off to foreigners, a nation swamped by unchecked plagues and superstition and illiteracy and hypnotic TV.'' The American ruling class of rich ''nincompoops'' had feathered its own nest while abandoning manufacturing for speculating. Now even the Japanese, an ''Army of Occupation in Business Suits,'' are giving up, leaving the country to the ''unhappy and increasingly lawless people of all races, who don't own anything.''
Writing it all down on odd scraps of paper is Eugene Debs Hartke, born in Delaware in 1940 and now a prisoner in a state reformatory that until recently had been Tarkington College, in the declining fictional town of Scipio, N.Y. After vividly and unsentimentally evoking, through the history of the town and college, a resilient, individualistic earlier America full of eccentric enterprise, he tells, by way of contrast, his own story. It involves an unsavory, emblematic career in Vietnam; living to regret it; preparing his Tarkington students for failure ''because failure is the main thing that's going to happen to them''; sleeping with the college president's wife, among other wives; getting fired for it; teaching brutal and broken inmates at a nearby maximum-security prison; and getting falsely implicated in a lethal prison break. Along the way we become reluctantly acquainted with Hartke's mad wife and madder mother-in-law; a feline right-wing columnist who could be mistaken for William F. Buckley Jr.; a vain party-throwing millionaire who could be mistaken for Malcolm Forbes; the numb rich; the warped poor.
The story is desultory, the pessimism relentless. The plot is festooned with Vonnegut's misanthropic reflections and curses: A parenthetical science- fiction parable suggests that germs, not humans, are the real ''darlings of the universe.'' Hereditary doom is a major theme. So is acquired doom. Racial hatred is presented as the paradigm of self-destructive human stupidity.
Hocus Pocus, which at one point defines art as ''making the most of the raw materials of futility,'' doesn't quite make the most of its own very raw material. Some of it is rant, some of it apocalyptic doodling. But its sense of the American past is the key to its utter failure to be merely depressing. Like Mark Twain, Vonnegut is clearly mortified to discover that the United States isn't immune to the series of afflictions and distempers known as history. The country seems to him morally tainted and spiritually depleted. He misses the cranky vigor of the past. But he also embodies it. Even at its most sour, the satire never loses its very American, very Midwestern plainspoken honesty and unpretentious charm. This book tells us that we are all at length undone by time, chance, and our own self-important folly, but it is intensely curious about the facts of the matter, and intensely indignant and sorrowful too. A-