Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Wavemaker II

by Mary-Beth Hughes

“Hughes is a writer of dexterity and imagination, with a great feel for sensory images. . . . [Hughes] guides us into a skillfully charted plot about the complex nature of loyalty, letting the story’s point of view float from one character to the next.” —Beverly Lowry, The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 208
  • Publication Date May 21, 2003
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3982-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $12.00

About The Book

National best-seller Wavemaker II is a heart-stopping story of what happens when one man takes a fall for another, leaving his family in disarray. Called “succinct and completely unsentimental” by Time Out New York, Mary-Beth Hughes’s novel is flawlessly executed, full of rich, nuanced characters and sensuous detail.

It is the summer of 1964 when Hughes drops us into the splintering world of the Clemens family, poised for collapse when Will Clemens is sent to prison for refusing in court to rat on the notorious McCarthy-era lawyer Roy Cohn. Wavemaker II, which zigzags between a quiet, suburban beach community and the extravagant high-rise frenzy of New York City, is brilliantly told through the points of view of each family member: lovely Kay, who tries to keep a grip on her deteriorating family; heart-wrenching little Bo, who is battling cancer; burgeoning adolescent Lou-Lou, who aches for her mother’s lost attention; and beguiling Will, who, with a tired strength, ushers us through spectacular prison scenes. Finally, there is Roy Cohn, who has become the family’s shadowy protector in gratitude for Will’s loyalty.

Charged with an exquisite tension that is riveting clear through to its denouement aboard the titular Wavemaker II, the novel is a masterpiece of page-turning suspense.

Tags Literary


“A writer of dexterity and imagination.” —New York Times Book Review

“A novella that reads like an epic: part prison story, hospital-ward drama, family tragedy, and historical flight of fancy . . . [An] enigmatic and challenging debut.” —Los Angeles Times

“A bone-chilling family drama . . . Hughes’s portrait of a weary, shell-shocked family is pitch perfect. . . . Succinct, intelligent, and completely unsentimental, Wavemaker II introduces a beautiful new voice in fiction.” —Time Out NY

“A spectacular splash.” —Vanity Fair

“[Wavemaker II] is, in all sense of the word, a composed work of fiction . . . elegantly constructed.” —The Washington Post

“The most important and surprising first novel I’ve read in years, full of subtlety and compassion and paradoxical empathy for a world-class scoundrel. Hughes’s elegant provocations get into you like a virus, and their traces kick around for a long time after.” —Rick Moody

“A brave and deeply moving first novel.” —Lorrie Moore

“A stunning first novel.” —Mindi Dickstein, St. Petersburg Times

“Subtly, cunningly, with a perfect instinct for the implicating detail, Mary-Beth Hughes has graphed the contours of the self-sabotaging human heart. Wavemaker II flashed forward relentlessly, every page peeling back further the mask of public power to expose the private corruptions of love. More a detonation than a debut.” —Sven Birkerts

“[Wavemaker II] is so ridiculously good that I’m sure to exhaust my supply of adjectives before I come close to expressing my admiration for it. . . . There is much to praise about Wavemaker II: its lovely spare prose, perfect pacing, details sharp and lethal as ice picks, and a handful of terrifying scenes into which Hughes writes so fearlessly that readers will be left wrung and stricken. Finally, though, what sets the novel apart is a raw power, an unselfconscious intensity and elegance, a rare breadth and depth of vision . . . sounds like genius to me.” —Darcy Cosper, Bookforum

“With insight and compassion, Hughes lays bare the Clemenses’ intricate dramas. . . . [An] artful first novel.” —Lisa Shea, O Magazine

“In her admirable debut novel, Wavemaker II, Mary-Beth Hughes stitches together a complex story of an unraveling family. . . . While the story line is full of daring shifts in point of view and authentic historical details, what holds the work together is the essential authority and music of the narrative voice. . . . It’s a grim and yet lyrically vivid period in this young family’s life, when nothing is going right, when the world is in league against them, and Hughes captures this with a wondrous array of sensual detail and a keen eye for the telling gestures of the crystallized perception.” —Fred Leebron, Ploughshares

“Highly original . . . [A] lyrical, poignant debut . . . in succinct, clipped sentences, Hughes relays intricate, heart-wrenching details . . . moving and vital.” —Publishers Weekly

“This first novel offers rich, nuanced characterizations ripe for book club discussion. Dozens of memorable scenes showcase Hughes’s eye for penetrating detail. . . . Highly recommended for all fiction collections.” —Library Journal

“In this glorious book about a glamorous, doomed family, Mary-Beth Hughes has taken a small, intricately knotted story from American history and unraveled it into a compelling narrative about the healing power of illness and the transcendence of the human spirit. . . . Hughes creates vivid scenes from the heart.” —Susan Cheever

“It takes a deft and sensitive writer to fill out the reality of such a story without being hobbled by the trueness of the characters and circumstances. . . . This novel evokes what a factual account of a life cannot bring us—the true beauty of human conflict, its tensions and releases, sensory assaults and pleasures, and the unconscious awkwardness and grace of it. For Mary-Beth Hughes, this is a truly impressive debut.” —Sarah Goodman, Bookpage

“I found it impossible to turn a page without being moved by this gorgeously written and deeply felt story of one father’s public act and its devastating personal ramifications. Wavemaker II‘s complex message and its depiction of Roy Cohn are especially important now, when America is once again forced to make Gordian decisions about her civil liberties.” —Sheri Holman

Wavemaker II comes out of a time when America was in one of its troubled childhoods, the years following Korea and preceding the hippies, when so many of us alive today were born, years which in retrospect appear almost to have been made up of the stuff of this novel: cocktails, big spending, surprising sex, weird politics. This is a book full of that special brand of American hopefulness and optimism that ran people ragged. Mary-Beth Hughes has given us a novel that is mysterious, intelligent, elegant.” —Donald Antrim


New York Times Notable Book for 2002
New York Times Book Review Notable Fiction 2002
Book Sense 76 Selection


Memorial Day, 1964

The marshals looked like ordinary men. They were not in good shape, they did not have wary eyes. Their man was not handcuffed to either of them, and when the steak was served they ate with appetite. Both men took the beer that was offered. After dinner they drank Scotch. They drove a blue car, not a black one; an Impala. They bit corn off the cob in a yard full of old trees: holly, sycamore, oak, pine. A hill sloped down to a creek, more than that, a small channel, wide and deep enough for pleasure boats to come back and forth and dock in the slips. Each yard had a slip, and at this house a Boston Whaler was tied up.

The hostess was young, about twenty-eight or twenty-nine, and pretty, with blond streaks in her hair and the top pulled back and pinned. She wore a Chinese jacket with silk frog closures. And when she bent down, one of the marshals, but not both, looked to the gap left between those closures for a glimpse of her lacy brassiere.

The other marshal was thinking of his boy. His son was slow in school and might have to go to summer classes. The marshal and his wife fought about this. At every chance, each hit the other surely and swiftly with the evidence that the boy’s poor progress could be traced back to the accused. The marshal believed his wife’s slow brain cells had diluted his own good stock and produced a son who couldn’t think his way out of the first grade.

The second man watched the pretty hostess with some pleasure. When their ward got up from the plastic latticework of his recliner and walked up the back steps to the porch, neither marshal blinked. The hostess refilled their glasses from a small bar set away from the heat of the grill. More Scotch. The evening was warm, and a velvet light settled on the lawn and the trees. At nightfall, they’d be leaving. Now the woman followed her husband up the steps and into the house. Their two children, William Junior and Ann Louise—Bo and Lou-Lou—stayed out on the lawn under the care of the next-door neighbors, the Maguires.

The marshal with the slow son looked at the two children lying a short distance away on grass as smooth as a carpet. The children had their cheeks to the blades of grass, and when they pressed their faces, small hectic weaves imprinted there. They were listening to the worms. They could hear the rumble of earth moving. The boy’s eyes were red with blood, more than bloodshot, almost filled where the whites should be. When his sister looked at him, confirming the loud worms, she looked beyond those terrible bruises and her brother laughed, then coughed. There are worse things than being stupid, the marshal thought. And he had the first kind thought for his wife in some time. He thought of her pregnant, visiting her folks on another Memorial Day when he’d been working, what else. He’d traveled down to the shore to be with them at the end of a long, tedious day with a felon who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. A foul-tongued sick fuck. The marshal’s mind was dead. He rode the local train down through about a hundred shore towns and arrived in Manasquan. His mother-in-law, stout as a bull, met him at the station in the green Chevrolet.

In the driveway, his father-in-law had the saw out. The stogie in his mouth was soaked. He bobbed his head toward the side yard. Behind the honeysuckle, the marshal’s wife sat on the low, thick branch of an oak tree, but still—he ran. What do you think you’re doing? She yawned, in no danger. He could see the shape of her belly, a white pear that erased completely, for the time being, all the things the felon had said, and he was so grateful to her he held out his hand for her swinging leg and kissed her heel and ankle and her toes all around the rubber V of her flip-flop.

Inside the house, Kay Clemens saw the cake would take a while to thaw. When she first got the word that Will was coming home for a visit, she bought a cake, then froze it, because they might be late and the cake would dry out. But they were right on time and now everyone would be drunk before she could serve it. It might be good if her husband was drunk, good and bad. Eight weeks since he’d been home. He didn’t even like cake. What was she thinking.

She wandered through the house, a long ranch style, with a layout of airy, sunny, low-ceilinged rooms, interweaving one into the next: dining, living, study, guest, master, and here he was, sitting head in his hands at the edge of his side of their bed, just as he used to sit most mornings waiting for black coffee in a mug. She was up at six anyway, on her third cup by the time he stirred. Now she wondered, What did he do? How did his day begin?

Will? she said. Dear heart. But her husband did not move. She sat beside him on the bed and smoothed down the silk jacket and tucked her hands beneath her thighs and waited. She stood up and listened in the doorway. She closed the door, flipped down the little hook lock. She sat beside her husband again and placed a hand against the curve of his neck. The smell of his clothing was so sharp, a desperate clean, and she thought about finding a shirt that was softer, a golf shirt maybe, from the drawerful he had, maybe something blue. She thought of his shirts but held still. She could smell the soap he used, which had no perfume, a kind of scent like shoe polish in a tin.

Her husband didn’t say anything. She withdrew her cheek and hands, and started with the frog closures on her jacket. Her husband released his head from his palms and, still looking down, watched the top of her instep sliding slightly in the black embroidered sandal. He watched her fingers push at the knots, then watched as she dropped the jacket back off her shoulders to the bed. She sat still, not doing anything, wearing the kind of brassiere she often wore, a full-coverage affair that clasped at the waist level in the back. Her belly rounded out just beneath the stiff ruff. She unzipped her black silk toreador trousers. Lifted her bottom off the bed just long enough to shimmy them off her hips. Dropped the trousers down to her sandaled feet. Started to lift her feet, then left them there, swaddled in black. She looked at the puddle of fabric. He looked at her ribbed, cinched waist. He looked to the cups, a bull’s-eye effect in stitching, and her shoulders, rounded slightly, not interrupted by bone.

Outside the door, there was a commotion coming toward them, like a beehive cracked open and the bees gaining volume and density, they could hear footsteps coming through the house. Hey, hey, came the voices, and Gert Maguire was knocking lightly on the door. Kay, she said. She kept the syllable tight, deliberately unemphatic. Kay heard Gert’s footsteps move away from the door. And quickly, quickly, back into her clothes, God, now, not everything buttoned. A frantic back look to her husband, and she was pressing hard at the hook on the door. Gert stood in the front foyer beyond the small corridor that led to the master suite. Red Maguire was on the phone with the pediatrician, who’d meet them at the hospital; the ambulance was already on the way, and the men who drove it, men Kay Clemens routinely brought gifts to, New York strip steaks by the dozen.

Past Gert, and followed by Gert, out through the living, dining, pantry, kitchen, porch to the yard to her son, Bo, held steady in the arms of a United States marshal. Down two steps, her frog clasps not quite done but who was watching now, and she knelt by her son and slowly took him from the man, brought her baby into her arms, her boy whose eyes were not quite closed. He was not conscious, How long, she said, how long? It would be the first thing anyone needed to know. The ambulance made its rude, loud way, backing up the gravel drive, backing onto the grass, and the emergency team, her friends, were beside her, oxygen first, then a stretcher. Kay kissed her daughter, Lou-Lou, who did not cry, and glanced at Gert to arrange all things in that glance: her daughter’s homework, sleep, school the next day. And then she stepped into the back of the ambulance in time to see the heart monitor register a beat strong enough, strong enough at least for her son to make it in time, once again, to the hospital. They would go local then, the next day, move him to New York.

Will Clemens stood at the top of the brick step. He looked at the wracked gravel, the tire marks on the lawn, and his mouth twisted, he pressed the heel of a hand to his eye.

Lou-Lou moved toward her father. One marshal put his hands in his pockets, took them out, then slipped past Will on the steps to make a phone call in the kitchen. When he came back, he said to the marshal with the interest in Kay’s brassiere: Let’s take a look at the water. The two walked down the gentle slope past the sycamore trees to watch the pleasure boats return at sundown to their slips.

When the marshals climbed back up the hill after a protracted observation of a thirty-five-foot trimaran, Will and Lou-Lou were seated on the screened porch. The Maguires tidied up. They dismantled the grill, collapsed the bar, wrapped the leftovers, loaded the dishwasher. The marshals both needed to use the facilities, and Gert directed them to the children’s bath through the den. One looked over the bookshelves while waiting for his partner: all leather-bound sets, no mysteries, no magazines, no newspapers. A big television, cabinet console. Three golf trophies, the type a club gives for no real reason. The marshals traded places. In the yellow bathroom, almost by rote, the second man slid open the mirrored medicine cabinet: a battalion of clear plastic, all made out to the boy in care of the mother, more than he’d ever seen in a home, this was extraordinary. He didn’t touch any but bent closer to read the dates, dosages, then drew the mirror closed. The house was so quiet. The street too. A cul-de-sac without a lot of traffic. It was getting dark.

The marshals made their way back to the porch. So, we’ll give it a minute. They sat down at the glass-top table, both folding their hands as if in casual prayer. Will swatted at something buzzing around his head. In the twilight, the Maguires were walking through the pine trees, across the yards, already pretty far gone. Lou-Lou, between them, knocked into Gert’s hip. Gert reached around, pulled her closer. Will didn’t watch. The insect had his full attention. No one spoke. Ten, fifteen minutes passed this way.

The phone rang. Will sat still. The marshal stood, looked at Will, then crossed to the door and into the house. He picked up on the seventh ring. Yes, sir. Got it. Okay. Okay. Yes, sir. Goodbye.

He stood in the door frame, All right, we’re going to the hospital, and he nodded several times. Will said, Oh God, and tried not to cry, and said, Two seconds, and went back through the kitchen, dining room, living room, den to the children’s bath, opened the same mirrored cabinet and emptied one vial from an uppermost shelf into the stiff paraffin-scented pocket of his shirt.

They closed the doors, snapped out the lights. Will sat in the backseat of the blue car without restraint. He thought he could still smell the charcoal fire in the air as they pulled out of the drive. The marshal on the passenger side fumbled with the spinning top, reached out to attach it to the roof. This took a moment or two. At the end of the road, the driver released the siren. They ran every light.

Reading Group Guide

Wavemaker II is a heart-stopping story of what happens when one man takes a fall for another, leaving his family in disarray. It is the summer of 1964 when Mary-Beth Hughes drops us into the splintering world of the Clemens family, poised for collapse when Will Clemens is sent to prison for refusing in court to rat on the notorious McCarthy-era lawyer Roy Cohn. Wavemaker II, which zigzags between a quiet, suburban beach community and the extravagant high-rise frenzy of New York City, is brilliantly told through the points of view of each family member: lovely Kay, who tries to keep a grip on her deteriorating family; heart-wrenching little Bo, who is battling cancer; burgeoning adolescent Lou-Lou, who aches for her mother’s lost attention; and beguiling Will, who, with a tired strength, ushers us through spectacular prison scenes. Finally, there is Roy Cohn, who has become the family’s shadowy protector in gratitude for Will’s loyalty.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Wavemaker II begins with the unraveling of certain deceptions: the whereabouts of Will and the condition of Bo. How does the truth become public? What are other secrets running through the novel? Can you describe the web of connections among characters that have secrets?

2. What accounts for the immediacy of the novel? Did you slide into easy acceptance of Hughes’ style? Does the omission of quotation marks speed the pace? Would you call the style a form of stream-of-consciousness?

The action offers extreme economy of time, all compressed between Memorial Day and the first of August. Do you feel there are no superfluous lines, that every word counts? Someone has said Wavemaker II is a 500-page book written in 200 pages. Do you agree? Does this compression demand a lot of the reader? Like other taut books, this one rewards a second reading. How does Hughes use flashbacks to expand our knowledge? The past is present particularly for certain characters. Think of examples relating to Will, Muddy and Esther, Roy, Gert, and others.

3. In the novel people’s lives are shaped by two seminal events. What are they? How do the parallel plots of Will and Bo reflect each other?

4. How is the Roy Cohn story used in Wavemaker II? What do you recall about the historical Cohn? (Check the Web for some provocative articles.) How has Hughes re-created him as fiction? Why do you think Hughes has chosen to keep his name? Would it be a very different story if his name were made up, say “Joe Greenberg”? What is the vendetta referred to on page 43?

5. What is the significance of the title? Is there more than one wavemaker in the book? How is the boat symbolic of various themes? Deliverance or escape? The power and pleasures and privacy that money can buy, at least temporarily? “Roy just needed a little peace. Marital whispers, judicial torpedoes. Basically he could take it, but peace never hurt. So he came directly to the boat. He’d circle Manhattan. A casual surveillance until Frank Reilly called in with the latest news from downtown. No one’s happy in a courtroom in the summer. Every day brought a new hassle” (p.80). When else is the boat used as a sanctuary? Consider the final scene of the book.

6. Roy is a disturbing character, yet we are drawn willingly into his world. Is it because he is the fulcrum of the story? It is he who makes things happen, for good and for ill? What are these things? Roy is a man of detail. Is he all the more insidious because Kay and her family must depend on him, his muscle and his money? How are we to trust his apparent concern for the Clemens family when it is he who has caused the disastrous disruption in their lives? What is the picture of American justice in the book, and how does Roy relate to it?

7. Hughes skillfully alternates narrative points of view. Again, there are no quotation marks. Would you be able to identify an isolated passage just by the person’s language and perceptions? In the narrative shifting, what may appear clear to one character is baffling to another. What are some incidents that reveal multiple points of view? Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, showing different versions of the same incident, provides a whole by means of its parts. Is “the whole” of the film or of this book going to be the same for all readers?

8. In a book that is insistent on closely observed details of the quotidian, are there still intimations of myths? Of fables or dreams that inspire? What are they? Do they prove effective? Which characters need to find hope on a smaller, human level? Which characters find solace or triumph in a bedrock love?

9. Is it true that heroism is not always dramatic or public? Is the concept of heroism relevant to this book? Do you see a true north in the narrative? Are certain truths held to be self-evident? Cite examples. Or do you see characters caught in accidents of history (of confusions, as Will reflects) as well as those of their own making? John Updike once said, “Character is what happens to a man plus what he does.” Is that what interests Hughes as a novelist? Consider Will, Key, and Roy. Others?

10. Were there hints of Will’s fate in his earlier behavior? How do you assess his easing into working for Kay’s father? His habitual checking-out of women? Think of Enid (p.109) and Dolly (p.124). On the other hand, if we are to believe Roy, he has always supported his mother. Was he careless or na’ve? Deceived by the Cohn people to his peril? Or was it a deliberate decision of conscience that put him in prison? Pasteur gives us one view of Will:

“Pasteur had read the newspapers. He didn’t much care for this man with his slicked hair, or the spin Will had put on Emily, but he could feel for him. Pasteur knew about being a father. Will nodded. Thought he had conned Pasteur, as he did everyone else” (p.108). Does Will remain in some ways a mystery in the novel?

11. Kay’s life and her reactions are pivotal for numerous other characters. How do we assess her as a person? She is tested in the extreme and isolated from those most important to her when she needs them most. Think of Will, Bo, her father. She also has human failings. What are they? Consider her mothering of Lou-Lou and her friendship with Gert. Is she developed in a way that makes her ultimately both credible and admirable? Or just human, which is perhaps the best of all?

12. Fear comes to the wary and unwary alike in the novel. What are some trapdoors that threaten the characters? Bo’s illness causes gnawing fear for many. Terror for his son attacks Will physically: “Will did feel nuts, but it was in his body. A word about Bo and he felt a kind of bizarre misery. It started in his groin, then radiated down toward the space behind each kneecap with a slow red insistence. It stopped there, rested in an oscillating on-off pattern, then traveled upward again, reaming his hip joints, landing in the center of his sternum. His throat would swell, then his head would finally dry out like a gourd and swing with pain. This choreography was completely reliable” (p.108). What parent who has ever panicked about a child does not recall these feelings? Can you think of other moments of fear in the book? In these days of increasing prosecution of white-collar crime, consider the prison. “Woeburne was always loudest at night, loudest and brightest. Spotlights washed out all shadow. And the sound rose from all the floors below, accrued, spiraled up to the glass roof and ricocheted down again in sharp notes, as if the roof were shattering and exploding, over and over. At night, men screamed and cried and made no more sense than howling babies, a hundred at once. The sound was deafening. More frightening than anything Will had ever heard” (p.126).

13. When are virtues subverted to cause destruction to oneself or others? Will comes to mind, certainly. Explain. What about Rufus? Others?

14. As dire as some elements of the novel are (prison, disgrace, mortal illness), on some levels it is almost a comedy of manners. What scenes evoke wry laughter as they satirize human behavior? Think of the deck of a motor yacht, a Fifth Avenue dinner party, a fashion show in the Stork Club. Air-mail bikinis, a Rodin hand of God, sixteen star Juilliard students playing “Ode to Joy.” Is the satire in the novel reserved for the rich and frivolous?

15. Sub-plots and mirror incidents are woven into the book. What are some of these intersecting plots? How are repeated motifs used to tighten the patterns in the novel? Consider child abuse, especially sexual. What are examples and what are the ramifications? Homosexuality, although central to the historical Roy Cohn story, is only suggested in the book. Is this meant to reflect Roy Cohn’s denial? That of others? Think of Will in prison with Sammy Finlandor. Do you ever think he is on a razor’s edge? Is it possible that this handsome husband and father might have been involved with Roy? Roy himself goes to considerable lengths to squire Esther and apparently cause the Mandells’ marital problems. Yet he does not marry. How do power and sex interrelate in Wavemaker II? “When he was in kindergarten, Roy asked his mother why he had no brothers. Everyone had brothers, it seemed, but him. Muddy said—and this was at breakfast too—that when Roy was a baby, he had eaten them in their cribs . . . That Roy had been left alone was a double message: He was too good, he wasn’t good enough. Any given second he toggled between the two self-assessments” (p.86). Does this passage explain something important about Roy or only deepen the mystery?

16. What are the consequences of the Lou-Lou misadventure? How does Hughes construct the event like setting a trap? The June 8th day (beginning on p.54) is told tightly through the child’s perspective for the most part. Does her limited understanding increase the tension? Lou-Lou’s journey on one level harks back to the terrors of fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks. Does Mr. McKim (p.58) remind us of Mr. McGregor in Beatrix Potter? He’s known for threatening children with a squirrel gun, but his exposure on his porch raises a deeper fear for the child. How does the sexual threat link with Gert and Red’s impromptu behavior in the same chapter? How are our reactions to the section conditioned by the rash of child abductions in recent years? And Rufus—is he the victim of racial stereotyping? Do we blame him for running?

17. Hughes has a superb gift for irony, especially proleptic irony, when she sows seeds for future events. The reader senses menace, perhaps, but only later does the truth spring. For instance Gert tells Kay that her husband, Red Maguire, has taken up running at night and she herself sleeps so soundly she never misses him.

I get in bed, I’m gone
Lucky. I get in bed. That’s a bad story
You don’t want to hear it.

What is ironic about this conversation? Can you think of other examples of Hughes’ laying ironic groundwork as a narrative device? What about Loretta Lynn and the foreshadowing of Will’s entrapment in the orchard?

18. The pictures of childhood are certainly not idealized. Recall the horrendous scene on the schoolbus (pp. 47-48), with one paragraph capturing all the cruelty children are capable of, directed at both Bo and Lou-Lou. How is Lou-Lou marginalized, by her teacher, other children, Gert, and even her mother? The world of children on the pediatric hematology ward is riveting. What are some details you found haunting about these young-old children, particularly Bo?

“Bo had learned that anything could make him sick before he knew it, a germ could wriggle its way into his body and he’d be out like a light, Mrs.Coxcomb said” (p.62).

19. Roy’s power is tested repeatedly. How? Think about his boat captain and the warden. There are ominous hints about retrial and the chance of his going to jail. His driver, Peter, has an eerie control at the wheel. We recall Roy, imprisoned in his dark blue limousine being slowly driven through the ghetto of New Haven (Elizabeth Bowen has a short story called “The Demon Lover” that this section reminds us of.) How is it almost a heart of darkness journey? Think of the scene with the large black man patting down the limo. Roy sees his black double or nemesis who seems to envelop the car.

20. Vignettes are drawn carefully. Like all art, they are most delightful when the hard work doesn’t show. Think about the flashes, the quick scenes that reveal character as x-ray reveals bone structure. For instance, there is Kay’s fury with another grieving mother monopolizing the hospital phone booth. Or Lou-Lou’s praying to be thin so her teacher and her mother would like her. Hughes has an ear for language that is real yet original. How does she do it? Again and again we read a phrase that snags our eyes yet seems inevitable. “Muddy’s lower lip had a pressed-down shape as if she’d stacked a couple of bricks there for a decade or so” (p.86). “And then Muddy with her nose that always seemed to smell something a little off when Esther was around, would point out the new hand soaps, for godsakes, it was a miracle they were still friends” (p.167). “When you win, everyone comes to the party. A fact of life. Lucky, he felt his luck like a snake winding around his feet, and that made him nervous for a second, even as they all lifted their glasses for the hundredth time that night, he was on the lookout for trouble, to find it before it found him” (p.181).

21. Is it relevant that books play no evident role in these characters’ lives? In Will and Kay’s house, the Marshall notices only leather-bound books, no current work, not even periodicals. Is the implication that these people seem to have no interest in the outside world or knowledge of history? Do they have to invent as they go? How do they fare without these resources? Even in prison where one might expect books to make a difference, Will declines Pasteur’s offer of law books. Novels are in short supply, and he refuses even to read his wife’s letters. “Will took a chair at the big oak table and stared for awhile at the black tape on all the spines of all the books. He waited for the dark and the dust to act medicinally. He looked at the tape and the white hand-inked titles describing things that happened slowly enough to make sense, unlike his experience, which was random, fast, and overwhelming. And then it was all hindsight. Sorting the past. Figuring. That’s all anyone did here” (p.109). How does this passage relate to Will’s experience as a whole? Does it also tell us something about Hughes’ writing style in this book?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald; The Red Hourglass by Gordon Grice; Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson; Independence Day by Richard Ford; Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe; American Pastoral by Philip Roth; Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser; Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow