Excerpted from American Youth by Phil LaMarche. Copyright © 2007 by Phil LaMarche. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Phil LaMarche
Random House Reader’s Circle: The hunting culture in the community of American Youth, as represented by the protagonist’s uncle, is contrasted against the new, more gentriﬁed population, as represented by the housing development at the beginning of the novel. Do you hope the reader will come to a conclusion about which of the two cultures is more worthy?
Phil LaMarche: There is a long-standing yet fallible romantic tradition of lamenting the loss of the “natural”–and on a good day I can recognize this and refrain from placing the two different cultures of the novel into any kind of hierarchy. But of course there are other days. I grew up in a town where my father and I did hunt the hill behind our house, and since then it’s transformed into something much different–lots of developments, McMansions, and an eighteen-hole golf course. My parents have moved away and I don’t go back to my hometown much. It’s hard to watch the landscape of your childhood disappear, and I think that the personal experience of that loss is what might sway my opinions concerning the two different cultures–not any kind of rational thought. I could be like the American Youth gang and become resentful and then do my best to justify and bolster that feeling, but where would that get me? On a good day I can see that change is natural.
RHRC: The woods play a large role in this novel. Can you say how–metaphorically and psychologically–you meant the old New England forest to be viewed by the reader?
PL: I wanted the woods to be a place of escape and solace for the boy. I also wanted the forest to work as a sort of liminal space–a place in transition, where change could occur. On a much simpler level, the forest also functions as a secret thoroughfare–one of the great things about growing up in the woods was that we could get just about anywhere we needed by foot, completely undetected.
RHRC: The detailed–almost poetic–description of dressing a deer shot by Ted’s uncle suggests a primal appeal in the idea of hunting. Is it meant to, and do you approve of hunting?
PL: There’s a long tradition of hunting in my family– dressing and butchering game have been a part of my family life ever since I can remember. We’re meat hunters, not so interested in the trophy aspect of the sport. “You can’t eat the horns,” is an old joke in the family. My freezer is full of venison, wild turkey, and duck–that should give you an idea of how I feel about hunting. I feel much better about that meat (prepared and handled by people I love and trust) than a steak from an industrial farm. On a practical level, skinning the deer provides Ted and his uncle with an intimate, bonding experience where a deeper conversation is possible. The bullet hole in the carcass also provides an interesting segue into Teddy’s thoughts on Bobby Dennison.
RHRC: George, the head of the high school group from which your novel takes its name, seems to be unusually intelligent. Did you mean him to be seen as a manipulator, or an idealist (however misguided), or both?
PL: Some of the most intelligent, charismatic people I knew growing up weren’t standouts in school. For whatever reason, they became disillusioned with the academic process or were cast out and their skills were then diverted into other–often less productive, often destructive–lines of work. I think that George is someone who could have been the class president or valedictorian, but somewhere (I suspect in his home) he became misdirected. Not ﬁnding an outlet for his intelligence and charisma elsewhere, he created one of his own. All too often I think that delinquency is seen as a result of an intellectual or moral deﬁciency, but frequently I think the opposite is the case and that the cause instead lies in the individual’s emotional make-up.
RHRC: The vandalism in American Youth sometimes seems puny, almost farcical, given the enormous forces bearing down on the kids involved. How did you hope the reader would respond to the generally small scale of these delinquencies?
PL: I wanted their actions to seem pitiful in a way, futile and impotent against the forces around them. I had also hoped for some slapstick humor there–I thought a little laughter might be a nice break from some of the darker subject matter. I like how they try to justify their vandalism with lofty political talk–that cracks me up.
RHRC: You show Colleen, the girl in American Youth, in serious and in ultimately destructive conﬂict about her sexuality. Do you think that adolescents face more complex choices and emotions about sex than they did back when the “rules” were stricter?
PL: Since I’m essentially of the same generation as Colleen, having been a teenager in the nineties, my perspective on generations both before and after mine is speculative at best. That said, I think that discussions of teenage sexuality often rely on a romantic if not dishonest representation of the past. If there is a generational cliché, or pattern in this discussion, it’s that adults seem to consistently mutter, “The goshdamned kids these days, drinking, screwing, swearing–the nation’s going to hell.” This idea of the idyllic past is something I try to shoot down in American Youth. In general, I think the kids today aren’t much different than they were in the past. My grandparents were married at sixteen and had a child soon thereafter–that seems much more complex and difﬁcult than anything I had to deal with at that age.
RHRC: Ted’s mother chooses to try to protect him by ordering him not to tell the truth about the ﬁrearms accident in which he was involved. How did you hope the reader would react to that choice?
PL: I hope a reader can understand where she’s coming from–that she’s acting out of a desire to protect her son and household. It’s easy to show a bad character doing bad things; I had hoped instead to show a good character doing something we can understand that ends up having dreadful consequences. That seems dramatically compelling to me.
RHRC: What psychological role do the long, economically necessary absences of Ted’s father play in Ted’s life?
PL: Ted’s home is fractured and changing, much like his town. The absence of his father is yet another piece missing from his support structure, making his ability to cope and determine right from wrong that much more difﬁcult.
RHRC: If you could revise this novel now, what changes would you make?
PL: I’d make Ted’s parents more sympathetic and spend more time showing what the events of the novel put them through emotionally.
1. American Youth is a coming-of-age story. LaMarche emphasizes his protagonist’s youth, referring to him as “the boy.” The boy is small in stature–he weighs “less than most of the girls he wanted to date” (p. 67). In what other ways is his immaturity shown? Does Teddy progress, or come of age? If so, how is his new maturity shown?
2. Phil LaMarche sets his novel in a small, developing New England town. How does the changing setting serve the story? the themes? How does it shape the characters? How does the mother resist change? How do the American Youth resist change? How do the men in Teddy’s family view change? How does Teddy avoid and accept change?
3. LaMarche skillfully uses guns to address American political divisions. At the same time, he implies that neither side of the gun debate is right or wrong. Without denying the destructive power of guns–the central conﬂict of the novel springs out of an accident with a gun–the story involves people’s identity with and nostalgia for guns, characters who treat their guns with love and care. Do you think LaMarche is trying to take a side, or avoid taking a side, in the gun debate? Would you peg him as liberal or conservative? Does this affect the way you interpret the story?
4. The story includes many examples of families for whom living with guns in their homes is part of their everyday lives. The accident takes place in a family’s dining room. The boy fondly remembers hunting trips he took with his father. Why is it important to address the role of guns in the private as well as in the public domain?
5. Adolescence involves learning responsibility. How does Teddy learn to avoid or accept responsibility? The people in Teddy’s life play roles that either encourage or distract him to this end. How do his mother, his father, his uncle, his grandfather, Terry, and the Youth do so? How do truths and lies play into taking responsibility?
6. Is the boy’s mother a good mother? How does she help or hinder the boy? Do you think her actions are self-serving or truly in the interest of her son? Why does she disallow Teddy from seeking counseling after the incident? What of her sense of morality?
7. Is the boy’s father a good father? Can he be said to be a good father despite his absence? What is his role in the boy’s life? Do they have a healthy relationship?
8. Teddy “started to see that everything that was good in the world was a result of honest American values. Anything bad was a result of a departure from those core principles” (p. 87). Which values is LaMarche talking about, and how are they American? Can LaMarche’s small town represent the whole of America? Is his America a stereotype, or does it hold a quintessence? Is America deﬁned by its people or by its places?
9. The Youth hold vandalism to be a highly effective “form of protest.” Do you agree? What are they protesting? Are they effective in their protest? Do you think the American Youth is a fascist group? Why?
10. Why does Teddy want to be part of the American Youth at ﬁrst? Why, then, does he later betray them–worse, attack them–when they want him in the group?
11. Why is George a good gang leader? Why does he want Teddy in the group so badly? Why does Teddy hit George and not Jason Becket with the rock at the end of the book?
12. Teddy’s sort-of girlfriend, Colleen, struggles with loyalty and sexuality, as does Teddy. Do their perspectives differ signiﬁcantly? Is theirs a “Mars” and “Venus” relationship? Do we get to know Colleen well enough to understand the choices she makes?
13. The majority of the novel is written in the past tense. Why do you think LaMarche changes to the present tense for the last few pages of the book? What is the author trying to get across?
14. Teddy is stuck. He is self-destructive, self-medicating, self-loathing, and lonely. By turns he feels guilty, angry, and detached–sometimes all at once. LaMarche paints a grim picture of adolescence, singed with burning pain. Do you think Teddy is an extreme case, or is this a typical portrait of the American adolescent? Are Teddy’s problems the result of his own actions, or of his environment?
15. Teddy’s uncle commits suicide by shooting himself in the mouth. LaMarche writes of the uncle (p. 152), “He had said, ‘You got yourself a lame horse, you know what you do: You take it out back, you take care of it.’ ” This is then reduced to: “In the action [of commiting suicide], Lawrence had proclaimed: I cannot live my life as I would like; therefore I assume the responsibility of ending it.” And ﬁnally to: “This sucks–fuck it.” How does this change the way Teddy thinks about death? How does it change the way he thinks about suicide? Later he puts a shotgun muzzle in his own mouth, but he stops short of pulling the trigger. Why doesn’t he go through with it himself?
16. Could this book be intended for youth, or is it better suited to adult readers? How do you think someone Teddy’s age would react to the novel?