This chapter is structured as a collection of “evidence.” The first piece of evidence comes from Richard Thinbill, who says, “We called him Sorcerer.” The next pieces of evidence are related to John’s love for magic and magic tricks: a photograph of John as a child, holding a wand, a quote from Eleanor about how he used to practice magic for hours, and a list of childish tricks he owned as a child. Patricia Hood, Kathy’s sister, says that Kathy was sometimes scared of John.
We ended the previous chapter by noting John’s propensity for deception. Here, O’Brien gives us evidence—a history, even—of his deception. This takes us back to his childhood, when he performed innocent tricks for his mother. Clearly, John’s love for magic as a child followed him for years afterwards—hence his nickname, and, it’s implied, the fear he inspires in Kathy.
The narrator quotes other books, such as The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon, and academic texts on trauma and paranoia. The Pynchon passage describes how a woman who lives in a constant state of fear and paranoia eventually realizes that the fear is all in her mind. To alleviate the fear, she does a great number of things, including getting married. The academic sources describe how armed combat almost always leads to trauma. Talking about trauma means talking about the evil of human nature.
Pynchon (himself a notoriously deceptive, reclusive author) describes how women make peace with their own insecurity. Perhaps this explains why Kathy married John—despite John’s mysteriousness, marrying him was preferably to dealing with her problems on her own. The information about trauma establishes an important theme in the novel—human nature, and our capacity for evil.
Eleanor says that John was always well behaved as a child. John’s service in the war had a big effect on his personality, she admits, but it’s “too easy” to say that the war made him who he is. Tony Carbo imagines that magic and politics were one and the same for John. Other sources, taken from the memoirs or biographies of American politicians like Lyndon B. Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, and Richard Nixon, describe how great politicians were motivated by boundless love—for their families, for their constituents—but also that their lives seemed to lack love.
These quotes help to explain how John became the man he is, yet they also acknowledge the limitations of these kinds of explanations. No one thing can explain John—not his experiences in war and not his family situation. Nevertheless, it’s important to keep in mind that politicians like John are often influenced by their relationships with family members. We can acknowledge that John’s father played an important part in his development, so long as we don’t get carried away and treat his father as the “skeleton key” to understanding John. And further, we should recognize that many other characters do try to understand each other using these sorts of “skeleton keys,” which basically means that no one really understands each other.
Ruth Rasmussen says that John threw away a perfectly good teakettle. Vincent Pearson, a part-time detective, insists that John “did something ugly,” but Arthur Lux, the sheriff, insists that Vincent is only a “theory man”—Arthur, who deals in facts, concludes that John’s case is “wide open.”
The mention of the teakettle is a god example of a “Chekhov’s Pistol”—a piece of information that seems ordinary, but which will clearly turn out to be important, by virtue of being mentioned at all. Lux’s comment about Vincent illustrates the tension between theory and fact. O’Brien will rely on both to reconstruct what happened to Kathy.