Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Call From Jersey by P.F. Kluge

The morning book group will discuss A Call From Jersey this Friday. P.F. Kluge, the writer-in-residence at Kenyon College, set A Call From Jersey in his hometown of Berkeley Heights. In 1984, a German immigrant named Hans Greifinger is looking back at the nearly 60 years he has spent in America, New Jersey mostly. His son, a hack travel writer who goes by the name George Griffin, is back in town to attend his high school reunion. The most compelling parts of the book are the old stories that Hans tells about his early days in America, especially the ones about the boxer Max Schmeling. Schmeling trained at Madame Bey's on River Road for historic fights with Jack Sharkey and Joe Louis.

In 2010 P.F. Kluge (pronounced Klu-gee) had a reading for A Call From Jersey here at the library. Perhaps this was in penitence for the fact that, in A Call From Jersey, every Sunday, Hans rips his son's travel column out of the Berkeley Heights Public Library's newspaper? Anyhow, our blog had a couple of blog posts about the book at the time. And there are interviews with the author on Overlook Press's blog and in the Star-Ledger.

If you're interested in P.F. Kluge's other books, National Public Radio named Gone Tomorrow one of the best books of 2008. Kluge's latest book, The Master Blaster, is coming out next month. George Griffin from A Call From Jersey actually first appeared in P.F. Kluge's 1987 novel MacArthur's Ghost. Kluge is most famous for Eddie and the Cruisers, ("the book that spawned the movie").

A Call From Jersey did not come with discussion questions, so here are a few of my own devising:

1. On page 66 and 67 Hans says
"I'm the pioneer. I shot at deer to keep them out of your mother's tulip bulbs, remember? I said hello to the Italians, the ones just off the boat, carrying flats of tomatoes on their heads while they walked down Plainfield Avenue. I remember when we used to get snowed in. I remember when there were ice storms, you could hear the frozen branches snapping, it sounded like an army was out there in the woods. Nobody knows this place like I do. So the question is - you don't have to answer it now. George, just think about it - how come I feel like a stranger?"
He goes on to say that "the town I lived was a better place than what they've got now". What changes have you seen in Berkeley Heights (or the town you live in), good and bad?

2. On page 119 Hans tells his son about an old German saying, no house, no homeland. On page 171 he says, "My first home in America is a ruin. My last home is for sale." And he knows that it will probably be torn down if it is sold. What does his house have to do with his feelings about his country?

3. Do you think that George is a failure? Why or why not? What are some of his major disappointments? Successes? Is his father disappointed in him? Why or why not?

4. The chapters alternate between Hans and George as narrators. Whose story was more interesting to you?

5. How would the book have been different if George's mother had been a narrator? How did your picture of Maria change as the book went on?

6. Is George's life that different from his classmates'? Compare him to Joan, Kenny and Gooker.

7. George asks Kenny how America is "turning out" on p 167. Kenny says
You're the writer. But from where I stand it looks ... I'll put this in language you can understand ... it looks kaput. Loss of momentum, fall out of orbit, settling of foundations.
What are some examples of other characters in the book who share this opinion?

8. Otto tells Heinz, "You can be an American or a German. You can't be both. If you don't like it, the ship sails both ways." (p 173) Does Hans think of himself an American or a German?

9. Discuss Hans' relationship with his brother Heinz.

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