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American Youth

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American Youth by Phil LaMarche
Paperback $15.00
Jan 08, 2008 | ISBN 9780812977400

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  • Jan 08, 2008 | ISBN 9780812977400

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  • Apr 10, 2007 | ISBN 9781588366054

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American Youth is a novel that demonstrates par excellence that the best writing is sometimes the simplest. A story of the individual, a story of America, it is one of those (all too) rare books that has stayed with me long after reading the last page.”
—Kate Atkinson

“The most compelling and exciting debut novel in years. What an amazing, gratifying book–we are lucky to have it. LaMarche proves that there are still young geniuses among us, wringing new life from the novel.”
—George Saunders, author of Pastoralia

“Men have never written about becoming a man as Phil LaMarche does in this page-turning debut. He’s the new Cormac McCarthy-in-waiting, wielding firearms with a muscular prose also evocative of Hemingway. The story runs hot as a pistol bore all the way through, with characters you can’t bear to leave. LaMarche’s
book is a heartfelt offering to the world.”
—Mary Karr, author of The Liar’s Club

Author Q&A

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.

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