A Hole in the Earth
About the book:
At the heart of this compelling novel about why men act the way they do is the profound and affecting story of a family, of what tears them apart and what can bring them back together.
Henry Porter’s summer begins when his daughter Nicole-whom he hasn’t seen since his wife divorced him five years ago-shows up on his doorstep. Nicole is a surprise; just graduated from high school-almost an adult-the gap between the little girl Henry once knew and the woman she has become leaves him fumbling for words. Days after Nicole arrives, Henry’s girlfriend, Elizabeth, reveals that she is pregnant. Henry is speechless at these two events, throwing into sharp relief his emotional landscape. He best deals with situations like these by heading off to the racetrack in time to make the daily double, and to place a few bets.
As Rick Bass writes, “a beautiful and aching novel, alarming in its wisdom and treatment of one of the great terrors, loneliness, and one of the great mercies, forgiveness.”
About the author:
Q. Henry is a father, and he has his own father to deal with. What similarities and differences do you notice between Henry and his own father? Examine the way Henry treats Nicole, and then look at the way his father treats him. Are they different? Similar? Compare and contrast both fathers’ attitude and behavior toward their children throughout the book. Are there ways in which the story of the father and daughter inform or otherwise enhance (or detract from) the story of the father and son?
Q. The book is called A Hole in the Earth, and it opens in the “biggest hole human beings ever dig.” Several passages and images in the book bring to mind both literal and figurative “holes” in the earth; examine the various kinds of “holes” in the earth the book deals with and explore the ways these images and references enhance (or detract from) the story.
Q. Much is made in the study of literature of what is called the “reliable” narrator. Gulliver, in Jonathan Swift’s great novel Gulliver’s Travels, is one example of an unreliable narrator. He is not, in other words, a truth-teller and his perceptions cannot, therefore, be trusted. Ishmael who tells the story of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s masterpiece is a reliable narrator and his perceptions and descriptions can be trusted. What sort of narrator is Henry Porter? Examine what he says, what his perceptions are. Is he reliable in his understanding of what is good, what is evil, what is right, and what is wrong? Is he right about Elizabeth? His father? Can he be trusted to tell the truth as he sees it? And even if he thinks he has the truth, and says what he thinks it is, does he have the truth?
Q. The women in Henry’s life include his mother, his first wife Catherine, his daughter Nicole, and his current “girl friend” Elizabeth. Examine his relationships to each of these women. What does he understand about them? What does he not understand about them?
Q. Henry says his father’s generation “painted pin-up girls on bombers,” and that his father grew up when being “a man” was “an achievement.” What does he mean by this? How has his generation changed? What does Henry think caused the change? Why does he think his generation is so ready to surrender? What does “being a man” mean to Henry’s generation? What does it mean to the women in the novel?
Q. Henry says gambling is really “making the right decisions” with the hope of a “little luck.” Examine the “decisions” Henry makes in the novel; both the gambling ones-i.e., the ones he makes at the track-and the ones that might be “gambles” in his life. What decisions is he capable of in his life that might be considered gambles? What decisions is he incapable of making? Contrast the kind of “gambles” inherent in his life decisions, both the ones he makes without too much trouble, and the ones he can’t make.
Q. In books that are called “literary,” or “serious” fiction, you will rarely find an evil, dark character with a pencil-thin mustache, wearing black clothing, and bent on “doing bad,” for “bad’s” sake. Fiction that is serious-as in “not frivolous”-usually deals with recognizable human characters in human situations, dealing with what has been called the human dilemma: how to live a good life in the face of all that is naturally opposed to it. In serious fiction, the writer usually provides human characters, all of whom intend good, all of whom mean well, and suffering happens anyway. So, what “evil” does Henry do? His father? Is there a “bad guy” in this novel, and who would you say it is?
Q. Compare and contrast Henry’s attitudes and thoughts at the end of the novel, with his beliefs and thoughts in the beginning? Has there been a change? If so, does that mean he is on the way to a kind of redemption? The first chapter heading at the beginning of the novel is At the End, and the last chapter heading is At the Beginning. What does that suggest? Why?
Q. In the end of the novel, Henry imagines himself going over to Elizabeth’s house, in early spring. He envisions seeing her emerge from the house and the two of them sitting down, as they did when they first met, and talking about things, becoming friends again. He says, “I wouldn’t bet on it, but it could happen.” What does this reveal about him? Would you bet on it? Why?