Set in an old Connecticut mill town in 1979, The Wasp Eater is William Lychack’s freshly original, heart-rending debut novel about a boy’s quest to reunite his estranged parents. Daniel’s father is forbidden to visit, but the man returns frequently to his son’s window at night, where they secretly maintain their relationship. Their contact encourages ten-year-old-Daniel, an only child, to attempt an extraordinary act in a desperate bid to mend his family.
Gentle, lyrical, and deeply felt, The Wasp Eater presents the reader with a dreamlike world, where haunting images and telling details hint at raw emotional undercurrents. Published to great acclaim, this tender journey into the world of a child will have certain appeal for fans of Dan Chaon and Kent Haruf.
“This spare, meticulous novel opens out like a poem, its deceptively casual images bearing a universe of weight.” — New York Times Book Review
“Poignant . . . Lychack finds new ways to describe feelings too achingly familiar to anyone whose parents ever delivered similar news.” — San Diego Union-Tribune
“A heart-stopping first novel . . . It’s tempting to call this a small gem, except there’s nothing small about a work that glows with such tenderness.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Lychack never overdoes the meaning or the melodrama here; instead, his aim is small, so small that only a writer with a measured and very precise command of language could attempt to achieve it . . . Lychack simply makes a reader feel the sadness inherent in this whole business of trying to connect with other human beings.” — Maureen Corrigan, National Public Radio’s Fresh Air
William Lychack is the author of a novel, The Wasp Eater, and a forthcoming collection of stories, The Architect of Flowers, both published by Houghton Mifflin. His work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, Witness, and on National Public Radio’s This American Life. A graduate of the writing program at the University of Michigan, he currently teaches at Connecticut College and in Lesley University’s low-residency MFA program.
1. What is the meaning of the title of the novel? What emotions do the wasp scene in the book conjure for you? How does the author use this image to suggest what Daniel is feeling about his home life?
2. After his parents separate, Daniel grapples with a range of shifting loyalties and emotions. At one point, Lychack writes, “he missed his father and wished he could just come home. It was like a thread through everything, this feeling, and yet, in an odd way, he missed his mother even more, as if she were the one who needed to come back home” (p. 57). What does this say about Daniel’s understanding of the separation? What are some of the other internal, often contradictory, emotions with which Daniel must cope?
3. What are Bob’s strengths and weaknesses as a man and as a father? Do you find him more or less sympathetic than Anna? What is your sense of Anna as a mother? How do Daniel’s relationships with his mother and his father differ, and how do they evolve over the course of the book?
4. Lychack writes that Daniel “felt he barely existed anymore, felt himself insubstantial as a ghost” (p. 117). To what do you attribute his waning sense of self? Is there evidence that either of his parents has neglected him?
5. Thinking back to her acceptance of Bob’s proposal, Anna remembers that “she didn’t want to think — that was the problem — she wanted to feel for once” (p. 26). Does Lychack offer many clues about what the Cusslers’ early marriage must have been like? Do you believe that they were happy once, or that they were ill matched from the beginning? Were their personalities incompatible, or did their actions alone lead to their separation?
6. How does Joelyn’s presence complicate the Cusslers’ relationship? Anna recalls that when the girl first came to stay with them, “Joelyn was somehow the thin end of a wedge between herself and Bob” (p. 43). How does Anna respond when the girl returns to help out?
7. On their road trip, Bob mentions to Daniel that it is “always easier to get forgiveness than permission anyway, right?” (p. 130). How is this ironic? Why is forgiveness so hard for Anna and so easy for Bob? What do you think of Bob’s attempts at reconciliation?
8. What does the ring represent to Anna, Bob, Daniel, and Joelyn? How does this contribute to our understanding of the characters and their values and motivations?
9. What instances of betrayal do you find in The Wasp Eater, and how do they differ in degree and intention? Are some betrayals more forgivable than others?
10. What is the emotional effect of ending the novel with an epilogue set more than a decade later? Based on the events of the epilogue, do you believe Bob ultimately does receive forgiveness from Anna or from Daniel? Has the conflict between the parents been resolved? What seems to be the lasting impact on Daniel?
The Wasp Eater is your first novel. How did the idea for the book originate, and how long were you at work on it?
I never knew my father — I met him twice before he died — so I imagine a part of me wanted to somehow spend some time with him. The novel grew into a kind of search for him, but it started out as an attempt to understand all of my mother’s unresolved feelings for my father, as well as to tell and honor her story. I eventually came to understand that I had my own deprivations that were compelling me to write.
Surely it must be true, as someone has said, that the longer you work on something, the less likely you are to finish it. Off and on, The Wasp Eater took about twelve years to complete. I should add that this isn’t something I’m terribly proud to tell people, nor is it something I’d ever wish on anyone, but I did seem to care an awful lot about the people in the book. I suppose I still do.
The fictional family has a rather unusual surname, Cussler. How did you choose it?
For as long as I can remember, Clive Cussler has been my mother’s favorite writer. His hero Dirk Pitt is still a kind of gold standard for her, a male ideal that exists somehow beyond the pages. In fact, the night before my wife and I got married, my mother delivered the most memorable line of the weekend. “Every woman,” she said, “needs a Dirk Pitt in her life.” As a kind of wink to her, when it came time to name our family in my novel, I gave them the last name Cussler, as if giving her the Dirk Pitt she deserved.
Now, this is what I tried to explain to Clive Cussler when he called one day and asked where I’d gotten the name — his name — for the family in my book. It was a completely unguarded five or ten minutes on the phone to Arizona. We talked a little about shipwrecks and seasickness and perhaps meeting for coffee one day as we said goodbye.
I called my wife, my editor, my agent, my editor again. And then, of course, I called my mother. “Hey, Mom,” I said, “you’ll never guess who called this afternoon — he wanted to know where I got the name Cussler from.”
“My, oh my!” she said, her voice tilting high.
I don’t believe my mother ever once said something like that in her life, but there it was, her voice so unhinged in a wonderful and strange way: “My, oh my!”
About an hour later, the phone rang again. “And what did he sound like?”
“Like a gentleman,” I told her, “his voice kind of soft and patient, a little like Burl Ives.”
Have any authors or literary works in particular influenced your writing?
William Maxwell was a great model for me as I wrote this book, especially two of his novels: So Long, See You Tomorrow and They Came Like Swallows. The first was a touchstone for language and tone, the second for emotion. I always kept Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and pieces of Larry Woiwode’s Beyond the Bedroom Wall and James Agee’s A Death in the Family close at hand, just as I always had a handful of short pieces around me: “Barn Burning” by Faulkner, “First Love” by Nabokov, and “Ghost and Flesh, Water and Dirt” by William Goyen. But to be honest, the only real rival to Maxwell was a film, My Life As a Dog, which captures the same tone and feeling perfectly.
I was obviously affected by stories that were prefigured by early death and loss. It was unconscious, but I suppose I found models whose tone spoke to me and helped me find my own voice. I could never say my own work is comparable to any of these, but on my better days I’m hopeful. They’re the stars I’ve hitched my wagon to, so to speak.
I never really knew my father. He left my mother when I was a year old and died when I was ten. I remember meeting him only twice, both times at his family farm. A piebald horse stepped on me the first visit, and this man I knew only from photographs handed me an Indian hatchet in hopes of distracting me and stopping my crying. Funny the things you don’t forget: a whole world of streaming shadows and all I see is a six- or seven-year-old boy alone on that farmhouse porch with an old tomahawk. His mother and father have gone back into the house together, and this boy’s unwrapping the long rawhide tassels and feathers from the wooden handle. Somewhere along the line, the kid has gotten it into his head that the more you use a blade, the sharper it’ll become.
And of all the possible moments in my father’s life, the only one I have is this: the man returning to the screen door and shuffling back out onto the porch. (One of his legs had been fused straight after a car accident — a year to the day he left my mother, apparently — and I remember holding my breath in fear of that Frankenstein shoe of his, that thick, black, seven-inch sole all worn and crude and dragging behind him.) He stands there, my father, and asks if he can get that strip of leather back for a minute. He must have needed it for something, but I’d already made quick work of it, the rawhide chopped into a hundred pieces, which I hold up to him in the cup of my palm.
Just that wince on my father’s face — part disbelief, part disgust, part exasperation — he doesn’t say a word to me before turning and going back into the house. Our second visit doesn’t go much better. The beagle puppy we brought with us fell between the bales of hay in the barn. My father had to break down the entire hayloft, bale by bale — it was an afternoon of work to rescue the whimpering dog. We never saw my father again after that.
What a testament to my mother that I never missed him. Not once do I recall wishing for my father, or hoping he’d come home, or even talking about him to anyone, except to excuse his absence. He died, I told people, in Vietnam, or in a car accident, or of a heart attack. In my entire childhood I don’t recall ever feeling deprived by his absence.
The truth is I would borrow fathers. A guidance counselor, a teacher, a coach, there were men who seemed more like a father to me than my own father. These men were more father to me than my own father, who was nothing but a few snapshots in a picture album, an occasional holiday card (or, rather, the lack of a card), a newspaper clipping of his obituary in my mother’s jewelry box:
William S. Lycheck [sic] of Holton Road, North Franklin, died Sunday evening unexpectedly. He was born July 1, 1925, son of the late William and Rosie (Palamar) Lycheck. He operated a window cleaning service in Putnam for several years prior to retirement. He was a veteran of World War Two, served in the Marine Corps from 1943-46. Surviving are one son, William J., of Putnam; one brother, Daniel, of North Franklin; two sisters, several aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. [Reprinted courtesy of the Norwich Bulletin, Norwich, Conn.]
A set of keys, a Mercury-head dime he carried for luck, and his wallet. That’s my inheritance, the effects that would remind me of my father’s absence, along with the cast-aside stories that my mother rolled out for holidays. Like the story of their pet raccoon, Basil, who bit him on the back of the neck and was put to sleep. Or the night he dangled me, a baby seven months old, over the edge of the patio until my mother gave him back his car keys. Or how he held her by the wrists and said, “I’ll kiss you in your coffin, Alice,” my mother apparently spitting in his face. And she told me — or did I just imagine this? — that she could bring him back to life with a whiff of Mennen after-shave. She never spoke of him without emotion in her voice, her chin trembling as she remembered a shaving-cream fight, a summer evening they slept out in the orchard, the winter they sold sandwiches from a truck in Greenpoint. And there were those visits to the farm, my mother casually tossing out this one detail to me, so many years later: she and my father would make love while I was outside playing.
Now what on earth was I supposed to do with that? How is a sentence like that supposed to lie still? Or the fact that my father died, of all days, on my mother’s birthday? I’d always imagined my mother and father having a contentious relationship, to say the least, the kind of marriage in which one always had to get in the last word, but taking her birthday from her seems a bit much to me, a little too perfect, so over the top it almost makes me smile.
As I grew up, everyone I met in town seemed to have a word about my father. The window washer, right? A real shirt-off-his-back kind of guy, your old man. We’d hide his cleaning equipment on him. They’d squint and say they saw his face in my face, while my mother would practically spit the man’s name at me if I unwittingly revived some habit of his. “You never even knew him,” she’d tell me, “and you’re just like the damned man!”
How could such scraps not whet my appetite for him? How could I not have worried and wondered about this man I never knew? How could I not try to conjure the magic ifs? What if my father didn’t want to leave us? What if we had one last hurrah together?
Just what the world needs, another story about an absent father. But for a long time it seemed like life or death to me, the struggle to write this story, to recover something that was, ultimately, unrecoverable. In what must have been a fit of despair over the novel, I unloaded all the accumulated doubts and worries I had about the book (and my life) on one of the many fathers I borrowed (or tried to borrow) over the years, William Maxwell. In a letter back to me, amid snippets of advice and news, he wrote:
Probably the reason your novel disappears on you is that there is really no model for it, and this makes you lose confidence. Possibly you are thinking that you don’t know enough about your father — about the facts of his life. This is not true, or if true, beside the point. There is so much that we know that we don’t know we know. Try to listen to your feelings as you would to the sound in a seashell, and then put them down on paper.
For six, seven, ten years I had that letter on the wall in front of my desk and tried to dowse my father’s feelings, only to realize that they were my own feelings, that it was my own dream to bring him back to life, to undo everything, to lay him to rest finally. In the end, I tried to write the book that I needed most to read, the record of a time my father and I never had together.
The following titles may be of interest to readers of The Wasp Eater:
The Every Boy by Dana Shapiro
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Esther Stories by Peter Orner
Dream Me Home Safely edited by Marian Wright Edelman