Reader's Guide

Compiled by Don Rifkin of W. W. Norton

1.  Lyndon rebels against the categorization of his work as ethnic art. Dalton Lee, the film director whom Woody covets, is bored with movies that “endlessly mull over . . . cultural heritage and wrestle with discrimination and assimilation.” Do the themes of Wrack and Ruin transcend ethnicity and cultural heritage? Could it just as easily been written by an author whose heritage as an “American” goes back several generations and who is well ensconced in our society?

2.  Lyndon resists being a success and embraced by high culture; Woody grapples with being a failure exiled from society and wants desperately to be perceived as a success by the Hollywood culture. Each has his own response to the possibilities of stoic estrangement or comfortable assimilation. Which brother’s response corresponds to your own? Do both responses make sense? Is it possible to reconcile these positions into one life? In what ways during the course of the novel do Lyndon and Woody gain insight into the other brother’s life choice, and in what ways could each never understand the other’s path?

3.  What, besides being very funny, makes Wrack and Ruin a comedy? Are there also tragic elements in the lives of these characters and the events that befall them? If so, why doesn’t their story become a tragedy?

4.  There’s usually a karmic order in fiction that bad things happen to bad or weak characters. A best-selling book has been written on the subject of why bad things happen to good people. In Wrack and Ruin, bad things happen to just about everyone. Argue why both Lyndon and Woody deserve, or at least participate in causing, the bad things that happen to them.

5.  What are the good points about Woody that Lyndon hasn’t been able to see, and the positive aspects of Lyndon’s character that Woody refuses to recognize?

6.  What has each brother learned by the end about themselves, each other, and their relationship? How has each changed, and what hasn’t changed? And could any of the changes have happened without the influence and presence of the other brother?

7.  “Into the destructive elements immerse,” Trudy paraphrases Joseph Conrad. How does Wrack and Ruin show that the destruction of lives, property, best-laid plans, relationships, families, and the commercial strip of a small town can be a “good” thing?

8.  Why in this novel is destruction, loss, humiliation so hilarious?

9.  Trudy succinctly summarizes Edmund Burke’s aesthetic differentiation between the nurturing qualities of the “beautiful” and the terrifying nature of the “sublime.” Apply Burke’s (and Trudy’s) views to Lyndon’s piece that he’s working on in the barn, to the movie that Woody wants to produce, and to Don Lee’s Wrack and Ruin.

10.  The massive sculpture in Woody’s barn is described as “unchecked by aesthetic restrictions or commercial concerns; a product of . . . artistic madness.” Contrast this piece with Woody’s approach to film making and to Don Lee’s craft in creating this novel. Does the author reconcile elements of each brother’s aesthetic in his own work?

11.  Lyndon wants to be “left alone” and wonders if that is “so much to ask.” Is it too much to ask? If Lyndon aspires to be a true artist, even working in isolation, a tree falling in a forest off the cultural radar, does he still need some participation in a community? If Woody wants constant recognition and acceptance for his work, can he accomplish it, or appreciate it, without becoming a more selfless member of a family and a community?

12.  According to Sheila, “a good book . . . teaches you about the dialectic of being an individual and finding community.” Apply that criteria to Wrack and Ruin.

13.  According to Kitchell, “Doing nothing is indefensible. It’s a ruthless world, and inertia will crush you.” Another philosopher in this novel is the Buddha, whose Eightfold Path includes right view, right intention, and right action. What makes Kitchell’s path materialistic and the Buddha’s spiritual? What are the fine points between not “doing nothing” and “right action”? Which philosophy is more viable in the very contemporary and honestly rendered world of Wrack and Ruin?

14.  Which of the above viewpoints does Woody gravitate to, and to which does Lyndon? What keeps each of them from being too extreme in their position?

15.  JuJu sees synchronicity (or, to be more simplistic, “coincidence”) as wondrous; Lyndon perceives it as chaos. During the course of this eventful Labor Day weekend, does synchronicity ultimately have a positive effect, a negative one, or a mixture of the two?

16.  If Woody became famous and successful in his “art,” would he handle it better than Lyndon did? If so, why? Because of positive aspects of his character or negative traits?

17.  Why is Woody so intent on finding the “reason” for Kyle’s suicide? Woody also has thoughts of, or verbalizes about, suicide. Do you think he could ever go through with it? Is his despair genuinely deep-rooted, or is it another superficial aspect of his personality? Why do the bad things that happen to Woody, and his proclamations of despair, seem comic?

18.  Is Lyndon’s rejection of success and his desire for seclusion a form of suicide? Or are they truly necessary for his psychic survival?

19.  Does the artist have an obligation to “right action”? To putting his work out in the world? To attempting through his work to touch others, to entertain and enlighten, to influence society for the better? Or do artists only have an obligation to themselves?

20.  Roland, Woody’s assistant, quotes Peter J. McGuire, a union official who first proposed Labor Day, as it being a holiday that honors those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” With this in mind, discuss the work of Lyndon, Woody, and some of the minor characters, such as Kitchell, JuJu, Ling Ling, Sheila, Steven the cop/failed writer, Dalton Lee, Laura Díaz-McClatchey , the Udderly Licious lovers/terrorists, and Trudy and Margot. What is the “rude nature” of these characters, and how is each attempting to carve “grandeur” out of themselves and the world they occupy.

21.  Laura Díaz-McClatchey describes herself as having had “a fall from grace,” as being “in exile” because she “did a bad thing.” Is Lyndon also “serving penance”? If so, what was the bad thing he did, and how is he still doing it? If he didn’t do a bad thing, has his situation simply evolved because, as the Buddha says, “life is suffering”? What steps by the end have both Lyndon and Woody taken to end, or at least dissipate, their suffering?

22.  Trudy believes that “to truly appreciate nature, be a part of it, you have to replace arrogance with humility.” In what ways have Lyndon and Woody (both of whom bear names of American presidents who led our country into war) been arrogant? In what ways have Lyndon and Woody (both of whom bear names of American presidents who came out of their martial experiences physically, emotionally, and spiritually devastated) been taught, and have accepted, humility?

23.  Trudy also quotes Woodrow Wilson concerning children: “They make an Argosy laden with gold out of a floating butterfly . . . and these stupid grownups try to translate these things into uninteresting facts.” Discuss the conflicts in this novel between positive aspirations—such as the creation of art, the cultivation of imagination and nature, and ecological activism—and the “grownup,” social obsession with “uninteresting facts.”