Synopses & Reviews
American Youth is a controlled, essential, and powerful tale of a teenager in southern New England who is confronted by a terrible moral dilemma following a firearms accident in his home. This tragedy earns him the admiration of a sinister gang of boys at his school and a girl associated with them. Set in a town riven by social and ideological tensions an old rural culture in conflict with newcomers this is a classic portrait of a young man struggling with the idea of identity and responsibility in an America ill at ease with itself.
"Phil LaMarche observes boys undergoing the rites of adolescence the way Rick Bass and Jim Harrison investigate the ravages of time on their fathers with an unflinching but sympathetic eye, sometimes amused, sometimes ashamed, always astonished." San Francisco Chronicle
"This is one of the most savagely beautiful, emotionally devastating and accurate readings of what it means to grow up in our soul-starved homeland that I've ever read." Los Angeles Times
"[M]anages to be emotionally powerful and more than a little unsettling." Dallas Morning News
"[A] small book, devastating in its particular portrayal of a boy who, under various pressures, approaches collapse." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"LaMarche writes in a clear, crisp, procedural prose, almost claustrophobic and airless, akin to Hemingway with almost none of that writer's lyricism, but his story is so riveting and toxic that it held me every step of the way." Providence Journal
About the Author
Phil LaMarche was a writing fellow in the Syracuse University graduate creative writing program. He was awarded the Ivan Klíma Fellowship in fiction in Prague and a Summer Literary Seminars fellowship in St. Petersburg, Russia. His story "In the Tradition of My Family," published in the spring 2005 edition of Ninth Letter and the 2005 Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize Stories anthology, has been made into a film by orLater Productions. He lives in central New York state.
Reading Group Guide
1. American Youth
is a coming-of-age story. LaMarche emphasizes his protagonists 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 Teddys 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 peoples 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 familys 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 Teddys 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 boys 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 boys father a good father? Can he be said to be a good father despite his absence? What is his role in the boys 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 LaMarches 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. Teddys 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 Teddys problems the result of his own actions, or of his environment?
15. Teddys 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 doesnt 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 Teddys age would react to the novel?