“One evening,” while John is still in the midst of his political career, John and Kathy are at a political party. At this point, they have been married for almost seven years, and are still very much in love. John gets drunk, drives home with Kathy, and makes love to her. Afterwards, they return to the party, where John makes a speech and does magic tricks.
John continues to show some signs of alcoholism. This is disturbing, since alcoholism played such a major role in his traumatic experiences with his father. In this scene, however, John seems perfectly in control of himself—he can glibly move between sex, drink, and charismatic political campaigning.
John went to Vietnam because of love, not because he wanted to be a good citizen or a hero. He imagines his father praising him for fighting. He thinks to himself that he sometimes does bad things to gain other people’s love, and that he hates himself for needing to be loved.
The information we learn here contradicts what we’ve heard earlier—is John going to Vietnam out of love, or out of political ambition? We sense that both hypotheses are partly correct—John seems to want to help others while also caring about his political career.
In college, John and Kathy often go to a bar called The Bottle Top. One night, John dares Kathy to steal a bottle of Scotch from the bar. Kathy talks the bartender into going into a back room, then takes a long time choosing which bottle to steal, and then takes it back to where they’re sitting. This makes John love Kathy, and he says that they should get married. He looks into her eyes, and thinks that they have a light that could only belong to her.
When they’re young, John and Kathy can bond over their deception of other people. Kathy, in this moment, clearly relishes the thrill of deception the same way John does. The image of Kathy’s eyes, another important one in the novel, will reappear many times, each time suggesting something slightly different. This is indicative of the way the entire novel works—the same object or fact can point to multiple, mutually contradictory conclusions at the same time.
Before John and Kathy can marry, John fights in Vietnam. He sends Kathy letters in which he talks about love, but not the deaths he’s seen. He compares their love to a pair of snakes he saw in Vietnam. Each was eating each other’s tail, until their heads almost touch and a soldier ended their lives by chopping them with a machete. He also mentions that the other soldiers call him Sorcerer, a nickname he enjoys.
John adopts a clear “persona” in this letter—the macho, intimidating soldier (the analogy of love being like two snakes seems designed to make Kathy feel a little uncomfortable). The image of two snakes eating each other suggests that love and war are often difficult to distinguish—this is clear if we look at John and Kathy’s relationship: it’s often hard to tell if they love or hate each other. And there is a sense that they are destroying each other through the intensity of their relationship.
As a child of nine or ten, John would lie in bed, surrounded by catalogs of magic tricks, making note of all the prices. The next day, he would travel alone by bus to a magic shop. There, he would try to work up the nerve to go inside. When he walked inside, a women with red hair would call, “You!”, and he would rush back outside and return home. At home, John would talk to his father. His father would ask him to watch a baseball game tomorrow, and John would say, “maybe.” In response, his father would say, “Maybe’s good enough for me.”
In contrast to his slick, glib manner as an adult, John seems shy and uncomfortable as a child, avoiding the ginger-haired woman. He also seems to be the one responsible for alienating his father, not the other way around. His father, by contrast, seems like a saint—a kind, loving father who respects his children enough to give them their own choices
One day in Vietnam, John senses, “Something was wrong.” He’s surrounded by gunfire and dead women. He sees dead animals and burning villages, and thinks that he doesn’t know where to shoot. He shoots at smoke and trees, and his only desire is to make what he sees go away. PFC Weatherby greets him as Sorcerer, and starts to smile. In response, Sorcerer shoots him.
John’s behavior in Vietnam becomes a little clearer—he’s clearly hiding the fact that he killed a soldier knowingly—but the circumstances of that event are far from completely explained at this point. Why John shot a fellow soldier remains to be seen.
Back in Minnesota, John is elected to the State Senate. He celebrates by hosting a small party, and getting a hotel suite with Kathy. In the suite, he and Kathy sing “My Way” by Frank Sinatra, and make love.
The juxtaposition of murder and political success sends a clear message—there’s something disturbing about politics, something that attracts liars and hypocrites like John. The use of Sinatra (who sings about “bad mistakes,” of which he’s “made a few”) is unnerving.
The narrator returns to describing John’s experiences in Vietnam. One evening, Charlie Company approaches a small village. The company is attacked by mortar fire, but no one is hurt. Afterwards, Sorcerer helps round up every villager, takes them back to the company, and performs a magic show. He performs card tricks, and turns a pear into an orange. He also makes the village disappear—a trick which, the narrator notes, involves artillery and white phosphorus. Everyone who watches the show finds the vanishing village “trick” spectacular.
It’s telling that John is called Sorcerer in this section—his identity in Vietnam is brand new, based on performance and appearances. The sinister side of magic is very obvious in this section. At first, we think that Sorcerer is doing the Vietnamese a favor. Then, we sense that the big “magic trick” he accomplished involved blowing up the Vietnamese village. This suggests that John’s magic is far from harmless—he uses it to do actual damage to other people.
As a child, John practices magic tricks in front of the mirror. He thinks that he can use magic to read his father’s mind. While looking in the mirror, he imagines his father thinking that he loves John. In general, John thinks, the mirror makes everything better. In the mirror, John’s father always smiles, and John doesn’t have to think about empty vodka bottles. John’s father drinks in the garage, always promising John that he’ll smash his bottles after he has one more drink.
It’s no coincidence that John spends so much time in front of a mirror. Looking in the mirror, John is both lost in his own thoughts and at the same time performing for himself. This fits with what we know already about how John lies not just to others but also to himself. In contrast to earlier in the chapter, John’s father’s behavior in this section is disturbing—he hardly seems like a good father, and the fact that John has to imagine his love suggests that he doesn’t love John much, or at least doesn’t or isn’t able to show it.
John’s father is a popular, charming man. The other boys in the neighborhood love to play football with him and listen to his stories and jokes. In school, John’s classmate, Tommy Winn makes a speech about how much he likes John’s father, and gives John a sad look that seems to say, “I wish he was my father.” At the time, John thinks that Tommy doesn’t know about his father’s drunkenness, or about how his father made fun of John when he got fat in the fourth grade, calling him “Jiggling John.” John’s mother insisted that John was only getting a little husky, but his father insisted that this wasn’t true, and criticized John for doing magic like a “pansy,” instead of playing sports.
We begin to see where John gets his fondness for deception and lying. His father is equally adept at hiding his demons from other people—indeed, he puts on an image of respectability and likability in front of other people. Worse, he abuses John verbally and encourages John to hate himself and his body. It’s hard to hate John when we learn that he’s the victim of an abusive father. His fondness for deception and nicknames seems to stem from someone else’s bullying, rather than his own decisions.
As an adult, before he’s found political success, John goes on walks with Kathy and discusses buying a house. Kathy wants to buy a blue Victorian-style house she’s seen, but understands that she and John don’t have the money for it. She dares John, jokingly, to rob a bank.
John and Kathy are only joking with each other, but it’s hard not to see something sinister in their conversation, given what we know about John’s propensity for lying and wrongdoing.
Sorcerer, the narrator says, thought he would get away with murder. Shooting PFC Weatherby was an accident, just a reflex, Sorcerer thinks. He tricks himself into believing that he hadn’t killed Weatherby, and tells himself that he loved Weatherby the way he would love an animal. He and the other soldiers blame the Vietcong for Weatherby’s death.
It’s hard to tell which parts of this to believe and which parts to take with a grain of salt. Was the murder really just a “reflex,” or is John only telling himself this because he doesn’t want to think of himself as a murderer? It’s difficult to answer these kinds of questions, because the narrator doesn’t offer his own opinion. It’s also revealing that John compares Weatherby to an animal—it’s as if, even in his fantasies of love, John isn’t capable of normal, human-to-human love. Whether this is because of his father or his own choices is left unclear.
In 1982, John Wade is elected lieutenant governor of Minnesota. He is 37 at the time. At the time, he and Kathy have begun arguing, but he’s proud to stand next to Kathy and take the oath of office. He plans to buy Kathy a blue Victorian house. After being inaugurated, he and Kathy dance with each other. John thinks that Kathy’s eyes are “only her eyes.”
At this stage, John is uncertain about his own worth as a person, his future, and his relationship with Kathy. O’Brien shows this with wordplay—John’s thoughts about Kathy’s eyes could be taken as a statement about her unique beauty, or her diminished worth to him.
At the age of eleven, John and his father drive to Karra’s Studio of Magic to buy John’s Christmas present. John notes that the store hasn’t changed since he was younger, and sheepishly walks inside. The red-haired woman still yells, “You!” at him. She and John’s father laugh with each other and talk like old friends.
John seems to group his father with strange, unfriendly people—thus, it seems to him that his father and the woman are friends.
At the magic shop, John chooses a magic trick called the “Guillotine of Death,” which is heavy and almost two feet high. The red-haired woman says that the Guillotine is her favorite trick. She demonstrates that there is a sharp blade on the Guillotine, and tells John’s father to put his arm under it. John’s father is reluctant to do so, but John urges him to, saying that he knows how to do the trick. The red-haired lady tells John, “Let him have it.”
John’s behavior in this section suggests that he uses magic as a way of fighting back against his father’s verbal abuse and bullying—it’s a way for him to make his father feel inferior and frightened, just as his father makes him feel this way. It’s easy to imagine this sense of resentment turning into guilt after his father dies.
As an adult, John thinks that he wants to crawl inside Kathy’s belly. He’s afraid of losing her, and spies on her, following her to the drug store and the post office. As he watches her run errands, he thinks that he loves her eyes so much that he wants to suck them from their sockets. Later, Kathy tells John that she feels as if he’s worming inside her, a suggestion that John doesn’t deny. He tells Kathy that they must be like snakes gobbling each other up.
John’s sense of love for Kathy takes on disturbing qualities in this section—it seems almost grotesque, as if he wants to own Kathy, treating her like an object instead of like a human being. It’s unclear how much of this is John’s “sincere” love for Kathy, and how much of it is carefully calculated to make Kathy feel uneasy—the mention of snakes seems closer to the latter than the former.
In Vietnam, the narrator says, Sorcerer is in his element. Vietnam is a place with tunnels, trap doors, monsters, and magic. There is no way of telling where the Vietcong are, or what the villagers are thinking. Secrecy, Sorcerer thinks, is key in Vietnam. Sorcerer’s own secrets include shooting PFC Weatherby, and the fact that he loves Vietnam. The biggest secret of all is about a place called Thuan Yen.
This information about Sorcerer and Vietnam contradicts what we’ve read so far. Evidently, Sorcerer / John isn’t in his element in Vietnam, since he feels that “something is wrong.” In this section, the implication is that Sorcerer is adapting to his surroundings—taking on a new name and a new identity to deal with the horrors he sees there—horrors that he alludes to at the end of this section.
John knows that he is sick. He tries to tell Kathy about his sickness. As they prepare dinner, he says that he’s afraid to look at himself in the mirror. Without ceasing to chop onions, Kathy tells him that she loves to look at him. John insists that he has to tell Kathy something important, but Kathy says, “It doesn’t matter.” She says, “We’ll be fine.” As John and Kathy look at each other, the narrator says, anything could have happened.
John is a sympathetic figure here—he’s clearly trying to find the words to explain himself to Kathy, but Kathy seems uninterested or indifferent to his feelings, unwilling to dig deeper. The narrator’s comment that “anything could have happened” is an apt way to talk about Kathy’s disappearance.
John doesn’t tell anyone about killing PFC Weatherby. However, he sometimes thinks he sees PFC Weatherby waving and smiling at him.
Even as Sorcerer—a persona designed to make John avoid a sense of guilt—John still feels guilty for killing Weatherby.
When John’s father died, John was a teenager. The day he was buried, John performed magic in front of the mirror. He tells his father that he wasn’t fat, but normal.
Clearly, magic—and more generally, fantasy and deception—are ways for John to avoid guilt and shame and fight back against his father’s abuse.
After John returns from Vietnam, Kathy doesn’t insist that John talk to a psychiatrist. At times, though, John yells out in his sleep, and Kathy says that he’s speaking in a voice she’s never heard. Later in the night, Sorcerer would stare at Kathy, and call her, “My Kath.” As he stares at her, Sorcerer pictures Weatherby, and his father’s coffin. He imagines two snakes eating each other, and dreams of the possibility that they eat all of each other, so that nothing—including his memories of Vietnam—will be left behind.
Here, the image of the two snakes eating each other broadens in its significance. It represents John’s disturbing idea of love, but also his fantasy of innocence. He wants to forget his actions in Vietnam (whatever they are—we don’t entirely know what he did yet). With this in mind, he wants to “balance out” his sins with something—it could be politics, marriage, or more deception. In any case, the goal is to forget, to repress the trauma of war, to make it disappear the way the two snakes eating each other—a symbol of violence and love combined—ultimately would cease to exist.