Reader's Guide for Wavemaker II
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 naïve? 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.