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The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles

East of Denver

Reading Group Guide for
The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles
Click to Download as pdf file

So your book club has decided to read The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles.  You’ve got the thematic drinks picked out (whiskey, eggnog) as well as the thematic costuming (jeans, pearl-buttoned shirt) and the proper mood music (America’s Greatest Hits, anything recorded by the author).  But what in the dickens are you going to talk about? 

Topic #1: Genre: Is The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles a Western? 

Topic #2: The Kitch and Johnny Relationship.  Anybody ever known somebody (possibly a sibling) who’s fallen ass backward into fame/notoriety/success?  But you still love that person?  Did that person get you all coked up at a New Years’ Eve party and then, the next day, cork up the only route of escape?  If so, discuss. 

Topic #3:  Oedipus Rex.  Father gets shot, a bull goes half-blind, and the story concludes with our protagonist apparently losing his virginity to a mother-figure.  Why did the author--who claims that Freudian analyses of literature make him want to throw up--choose to include so much Oedipal imagery in this book? 

Topic #4:  Addiction.  Johnny Riles is an alcoholic.  His brother drinks, smokes pot, and loves cocaine.  Does The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles take a moral stance on the use of drugs?  Should it?

Topic #5:  A Horse With No Name.   Names are a frequent topic in this novel.  Johnny doesn’t name his animals.  Jabez and Charlie both have men’s names.   Kitch jibes Johnny by calling him J.R.  Please speculate upon the reasons for these name-related issues.

Topic #6: That crazy, nutty hole in the ground.  There’s a sense of fertility within the caverns, from the shape of the tunnels, to the presence of the baby mammoth, to Johnny and Jabez’s final act.  But the book never directly addresses their intended purpose.  Jabez says of the caverns,  This place is whatever I think it is.  It’s whatever you think it is. 
What do you think the caverns are? 

Topic #7:  Charlie Morning.  Charlie was fond of Johnny.  Johnny was fond of Charlie.  What kept them from consummating their relationship? 

At the hotel, before Kitch’s basketball game:

Johnny:  I don’t normally talk about [sex].
Charlie: I usually like that about you.

If Johnny had been more like his brother, he would have been far more forward with Charlie rather than trying his hand at a chaste romanticism.  Was Johnny’s love life (and, by extension, his happiness) trapped in a Catch-22 wherein he knew precisely what would make him happy, but so loathed becoming like his brother that he instead foundered under his compulsion to be passive? 

Topic #8:  Mirth.  Is it appropriate to laugh while reading The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles?  Much of the book has a very bleak tone and yet it consistently sneaks in moments that would be comedic under slightly different circumstances.  Consider the scene in which Johnny enters his crawlspace in search of his missing toes.  The scene could be something out of a horror novel, but Johnny’s voice is so matter-of-fact--as if he’s accustomed to looking for missing toes in a bathtub drain--that his behavior seems as natural as frying some eggs.  These moment of absurdity demand that the book not be taken too terribly seriously.  Or do they?  

Topic #9: The Ending.  The book seems to imply that, for their final act, Johnny and Jabez have sex.  Describing this act and summing up his life, Johnny says,  After all, after all this.  I won’t say it was worth it, but it was far from not. Does Johnny’s equivocal, but more or less positive, take on his circumstances, allow us to leave this novel feeling optimistic?  Or must we focus exclusively on the tragedy: Kitch’s death, the lonesome howls of the poodle; the probable demise of Johnny and Jabez; the grief that Charlie will experience if she can’t find them in time; the betrayal she’ll feel if she finds them in time but in flagrante delicto?  Can tragedy and relief co-exist in this book?

BONUS Topic: Basketball.  Anybody remember the ABA?  If so, discuss.

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Reading Group Guide for East of Denver
Click to Download as pdf file

1) Is East of Denver a comedy?  Or are the "funny" parts so tinged with sadness that the book can only be considered tragic?  For instance, is it okay to laugh when Emmett misstates an idiomatic expression?  Or should we pity him? 
2) Why does the book, after two hundred pages of more or less realistic behavior, go completely nuts for the last few chapters?  Why does the book end where it does, without a complete resolution?  Do Shakes and Emmett land the plane?  What happens to the people inside the bank?  Ultimately, is it a happy ending or a sad ending?

3) What role does hopelessness play in East of Denver?  It seems that most of the characters are motivated not by a promise of a better life, but out of a certain despair for the gradual worsening of their own.  Clarissa McPhail's eating disorder, Vaughan Atkins’ reluctance to leave his basement, and Shakespeare's ultimate decision for the future of the farm all seem to be the acts of people who've given up hope.  Does this make these characters hard to like?  Only Emmett, with his lack of mooring in time, seems to be impervious to the misery that gradually descends throughout the novel. 

4)  Sense of place questions: The author has said that East of Denver represents the "unhomesteading of America," going so far as to claim that the book can be interpreted as a reverse of Hal Borland's growing-up-on-the-plains memoir, High Wide and Lonesome.   Is there a greater geographical, political, environmental message within this concept of "unhomesteading?"  And how is the barren, yet teeming-with-life nature of the landscape reflected in the book's characters?

5)  The plot of East of Denver is unconventional, almost meandering at times.  Is this a deliberate attempt to mimic the undirected nature of life overcome by dementia?

6) Why don't we ever find out what Shakes did for work in Denver?   It seems like his job/friends/living conditions would be relevant to the story.  But the book barely mentions his Denver life.

7) Are there any biblical allusions in the story?  The bush with snake in it, the garden, the conclusive flight toward the heavens. . .are these deliberate biblical references with some sort of message?  Or did the author put them in just to make people ask questions like this one? 

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