As a child, John loved to perform magic tricks: silk scarves, a disappearing penny, etc. While these are only tricks, not real magic, John the child liked to pretend that the tricks are real. At fourteen, John’s father dies, and in his mind he performs magic tricks that restore his father to life.
This section suggests that John’s father indirectly influenced John’s entry into the world of politics. His death influenced John to perform more magic and, based on what Tony Carbo said in the previous chapter, John thus went on to view politics itself as a collection of magic tricks.
John meets Kathy in 1966, when he’s a senior at the University of Minnesota, and Kathy is a freshman. John is desperate to make Kathy love him. He thinks of his father’s death, and worries to Kathy that things could go wrong between them. Shortly after they begin dating, John begins to spy on Kathy when she thinks she’s on her own. He learns that she smokes, and what she eats for breakfast. He thinks that he loves Kathy best when he’s spying on her, and the spying comes naturally to him. John knows that spying is wrong, but he blames Kathy for bringing the desire to spy out in him.
This section is structured to make us feel sympathetic to John, while also understanding the limits of that sympathy. Clearly, John’s love for Kathy is related to his acute sense of loss and guilt concerning his father. At the same time, this doesn’t absolve him of guilt for stalking Kathy—it’s petty and irresponsible and also kind of scary of him to blame Kathy for encouraging him to stalk her, anyway. There is an implication here that John views Kathy as an object whose only purpose is to love him.
John continues spying on Kathy: he watched when she buys his birthday present, and when she buys her first diaphragm. Kathy says that it’s weird how well he knows her. Nevertheless, they plan to get married and live in Minneapolis. John plans to go to law school, then run for lieutenant governor of the state of Minnesota, followed by Senator. Kathy is impressed, but finds John’s plans cold and unfeeling. She asks John why he wants to go into politics, and he tells her that it’s because he loves Kathy. Even as he promises Kathy that he wants to use politics to do good, John knows that he’s lying. He knows that he enjoys politics because it involves manipulation and deception.
John is a manipulator and a liar who clearly enjoys the sense of exercising power over other people—hence his fondness for following the people he loves. It’s as if John thinks that loving others and watching them are synonymous. It’s revealing that Kathy seems to understand John perfectly well—-she recognizes, for instance, that he’s going into politics for himself, not for others—and yet continues to stay with John. Perhaps she sees some of herself in John, or perhaps her attraction to John is even more abstract, possibly even based on the fact that he is so hard to know.
John graduates college in June of 1967, when the Vietnam war is in progress. In nine months, he is in active combat in Vietnam. His challenge during the war, he understands, is to stay sane. He sends letters to Kathy, and she writes him back. While most of their correspondence is cheery, Kathy worries that John is only fighting so that he’ll have an easier time getting elected. John is hurt, although he admits to himself that he sometimes fantasizes about being worshipped by crowds for his military sacrifices. He writes Kathy and tells her that he wishes she’d believe in him.
We see a tension between appearances and essences. John wants to appear to be cheerful and happy, even though, we sense, he’s clearly witnessing awful things in Vietnam. Part of the sadness of this section is that John seems to be fooling himself as well as other people—he seems to believe, or at least half-believe, that he wants to go into politics to help other people. The desire to serve and the desire to control are always at odds in his head. It’s not just that other people don’t understand him. John doesn’t seem to understand himself (and there is also a broader implication: that people in general don’t totally understand themselves).
John isn’t a great soldier, but he’s popular among the other men. He does card tricks for them, which earn him the nickname, “Sorcerer.” Once, a soldier named Weber is fatally shot while John is with him. As Weber dies, he asks John to do his magic.
John sees the military as a kind of practice for being a politician. He seems to be performing a useful function for the other soldiers, even if he’s only doing so for his own selfish reasons—practice for his career later on.
John’s magic eventually works its way into the military plans of his division, Charlie Company. The soldiers go through mock-rituals before they fight, in which John casts a spell to make them invisible, and tells their fortunes. They are impressed that John never gets injured, even when an explosive lands near him. John encourages this mystique. He writes to Kathy that he’s the company “witch doctor.” He also writes, “They actually believe in this shit.” Kathy warns him to be careful with his tricks—one day, she says, he’ll make her disappear.
John reveals himself to be a remarkably cynical and unfeeling man, one who has no respect for the people who like him. He hypocritically encourages the soldiers to worship him, then laughs at them for doing so. Kathy’s words obviously foreshadow the events of the coming chapters, when Kathy herself will disappear. Coming on the heels of O’Brien’s disturbing descriptions of John, this suggests that John is, or may be, responsible for Kathy’s disappearance.
John worries that Kathy is growing distant. In a letter she sends him, she describes the fun she’s been having, and he wishes he could spy on her. Meanwhile, men in Charlie Company die, and there’s a general feeling that his magic has worn off. The soldiers aren’t warm to him anymore.
John’s relationship with Kathy parallels his relationship with the other men—it’s as if they all start to see through John at the same time.
In February, an enemy sniper shoots a soldier named Reinhart; John is with Reinhart when he dies. John feels his body fill with anger, sadness, and evil. As if in a trance, he runs through the forest until he reaches the sniper, who he hits in the cheekbone with his gun. Later the soldiers praise John for finding the sniper so quickly. The soldiers perform their own act of magic: they raise the sniper high into the air with a rope, so that the Vietnamese villagers can see him.
This description of John’s behavior suggests that he’s not fully conscious of what he’s doing—it’s as if he, not the author, is the one repressing details of his experience. This is consistent with the definition of trauma. The section ends with a gruesome “act of magic”—the juxtaposition of magic, a seemingly innocent pursuit, and murder is far more disturbing than murder by itself could ever be.
John returns to the United States in 1969. He calls Kathy, but hangs up before she can answer. During a layover between his flight home, he looks at himself in the mirror and addresses himself as Sorcerer. When he’s back in Minneapolis, he goes to the University of Minnesota and waits outside Kathy’s dormitory. He rehearses a speech about loyalty that he’ll deliver to Kathy later, but when he sees her, he notices that she seems quicker and cleverer. This makes him feel uneasy, and he goes to say in a hotel that night.
The scene in which John calls Kathy and then talks to himself in the mirror will appear later in the novel, in a different context. This is O’Brien’s way of illustrating that context and backstory are as important as the facts themselves—one can’t understand why John talks to himself in the mirror without understanding what he was doing previously. John’s love for Kathy seems to hinge upon his thinking that he can fool her—he treats her like a constituent, as if she’s practice for a life of politics. His uneasiness about Kathy’s increasing cleverness makes him uncomfortable, it is implied, because she might be able to see through his “tricks.”
The night he sees Kathy, John sleeps in a hotel and thinks about his father’s funeral. He remembers wanting to hit everyone with a hammer, including his father. The next day, he returns to Kathy’s dormitory, but can’t resist spying on her as she goes to class and buys food. He feels suspicious that Kathy is seeing another man, but he also wants to forget his own suspicion. Still, he decides, he is the Sorcerer, and he has a gift for magic.
Again, John’s deception is rendered more poignant than it would otherwise be because John is clearly deceiving himself, too. He knows that it’s wrong to spy on other people, but his experiences in Vietnam have taught him to behave differently. It’s difficult to assign blame for John’s behavior—is he a product of his environment and his upbringing, or is he a free agent entirely responsible for his behavior?
John watches as Kathy leaves her dorm and makes a phone call from a payphone. He waits outside her dormitory all night and into the morning. When Kathy returns and sees him there, she says that she was out, and John smiles and nods. In the end, they get married anyway.
It’s revealing that John marries Kathy even after he thinks that she’s having a relationship with someone else. Having this knowledge gives John power over Kathy, and it’s these two things—knowledge and power—that he’s always seemed to enjoy about their relationship. Why Kathy marries John is more mysterious, and in some ways why she is with John is as mysterious as her eventual disappearance.
When John and Kathy get married, they promise to be true to one another, and move into an apartment in Minneapolis shortly thereafter. Kathy says it’s scary how much she loves him. John, or “Sorcerer,” as the narrator calls him, thinks to himself that he must guard his secrets, and never reveal the things he’s seen and done.
The chapter ends on a somewhat surprising note—even after John squeezes information from Kathy, he refuses to give up any information about himself. One can call John hypocritical for behaving this way, but one can also be sympathetic—clearly he’s seen things in Vietnam that he finds hard to deal with himself, let alone pass on to other people.