reading group guides

Warning: These guides CONTAIN SPOILERS

East of Denver: Strattford County Yarn, Vol I

The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles: Strattford County Yarn, Vol II

Zebra Skin Shirt: Strattford County Yarn, Vol III

Reading Group Guide for
East of Denver

Topic #1: Is East of Denver a comedy?  Or are the "funny" parts so tinged with sadness that the book can only be considered tragic? 
Topic #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 is it an ecstatic beginning?

Topic #3: Hopelessness.  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 to destroy the farm are all acts of people who've given up hope. And yet, Emmett, the most tragic figure in the book, seems more or less optimistic throughout. Question: Sould hopelessness be treated with dementia?

Topic #4   Sense of place. 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?

Topic #5: 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. Why? Why?!?

Topic #6: Biblical allusions.  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 encourage people ask questions like this one? 

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Reading Group Guide for
The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles

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? 

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 chose to die in a hole in the ground.

Topic #8:  Mirth.  Is it appropriate to laugh while reading The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles?  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? Or don't 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

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

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Reading Group Guide for
Zebra Skin Shirt

Topic #1: Does Narwhal prove to be a likeable narrator? Early in the book he confesses, I am not inherently likeable...I am honest, though. He illustrates this honesty by describing a thoroughly unlikeable act of racial idiocy he commited as a boy. During the course of the book, he confesses to behaving like a misogynist, a voyeur, a cynic, a petty prankster, and a self-centered control-freak. Is he truly an irredeemable turd or can we dismiss his social trangressions as the acts of someone who, at his core, is more decent than he suspects?

Topic #2: Voice. From the very first paragraph, Narwhal's narration is impulsive, disjointed, punny, and littered with digressive internal clauses whose sole intent seems to be to disorient the reader. Question: would you rather spend six hours locked in a room with:

a) a copy of Zebra Skin Shirt,

b) your co-worker who has a raging case of ADHD, or,

c) a methamphetamine addict who's lost thon's cigarettes but is certain that thon can find them if the two of you can just figure out a way to build a cigarette-detector out of a pair of sunglasses?

Topic #3: Continuity with Vols 1 and 2 of the Strattford County Yarns. Zebra Skin Shirt follows up on several unresolved elements of the first two books of the Strattford County series. It's almost as if your humble author had this all planned out from the beginning! Nod in agreement and move to the next topic...

Topic #4: To quote one of the shorter reviews of The Lonesome Trials of Johnny Riles, What just happened? Similarly to the previous two entries in the series, the concluson of Zebra Skin Shirt sends the story into Bonkersville. What do the introduction of alien Q-tips, time travel, and Pleistocene megafauna suggest vis-a-vis your approach to aural hygiene?

Topic #5: Epilogue. In Narwhal's hallucinogenic vision of Jabez, Pinta the Pluton describes the death of a pregnant wooly mammoth. In the epilogue, the scene is revisited, and this time the mammoth survives to give birth and suckle her calf while standing in a pile of hail dyed pink with amniotic fluid. Have you ever read something so tender?

Bonus, animal-related topics: Do you have a "penguin"? What is the meaning of the one-legged seagull? Would you ever decapitate an animal whose leg you've accidentally broken, and then consume its raw flesh? When does a squirrel stop being a squirrel and start being grey water?

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