This reading group guide for Long Drive Home includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Will Allison. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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A happily married suburban father makes a mistake that results in a teenager’s death and sends his own life into a devastating tailspin. Written in part as a confessional letter, Long Drive Home
is a cautionary tale that explores the moral ambiguities of personal responsibility as it chronicles a father’s attempt to explain himself to his daughter—even though he knows that in doing so, he risks losing her forever.TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. While driving home with his daughter, Sara, Glen Bauer engages in a showdown with a teenaged driver, Juwan Howard, that results in tragedy. Do you think the accident is all Glen’s fault? If not, how much of the blame rests with Juwan?
2. After being interrogated by the police, Glen lies to his wife, Liz, about the accident too: “I waited until we got to the restaurant to tell my version, basically the same story I’d told the police. Somehow, with Liz, it felt like even more of a lie.” (p. 30) Why doesn’t he tell her the truth? What are the ramifications?
3. Later, after Glen confesses more of the truth to Liz, she tells him, “[You] can’t really say [the accident] was your fault. You might have been involved,
but that’s not the same. You were just minding your own business. He was the one breaking the law. He caused the accident.” (p. 53) How do you feel about her argument?
4. After watching Tawana, Juwan’s mother, break down at the site of the accident, Glen is consumed with guilt: “I remember feeling like it would serve me right if something terrible happened to my family too. To get what I’d given. That’s what I would have wanted, I think, if I had been in her shoes.” (p. 44) Do you think he’s right, or would Tawana have shown more forgiveness than he imagines?
5. Glen and Liz decide to attend Juwan’s funeral for very different reasons. What are they? Do you think either has an ulterior motive?
6. How do Glen’s first impressions of Juwan differ from his later impressions? Do you think his attitude toward Juwan has anything to do with race?
7. “My run-in with the Suburban guy was no more a mere footnote to the accident than the accident itself was an isolated, out-of-the-blue event. On the contrary, it had been the culmination of that whole afternoon, in which A led to B led to C.” (pp. 63-64) Do you find this line of reasoning convincing? How much do the events leading up to the accident contribute to the accident itself?
8. Glen doubts his ability to deceive Detective Rizzo: “A guilty conscious can be tricky that way: knowing I was lying made it hard to believe anyone else could believe me.” (p. 77) When do you think Rizzo first becomes suspicious of Glen?
9. “It’s about Sara,” Liz tells Glen. “Her future. I’ve worked hard to give her a good one—we both have—and I’m going to make sure she gets it.” Do you feel Liz is justified in demanding a divorce? (p. 84-85)
10. Glen doesn’t understand Liz’s behavior: “[D]espite what she said, I can’t believe the accident was the only thing she was reacting to. I think she must have been mad at me for a while, or disappointed at the way our marriage had turned out. Somehow all of that got tangled up in the decision she was making.” (p. 93) Do you think he’s right? What other factors might be involved?
11. Recalling his conversation with Tawana outside Burris’s office, Glen says, “Looking back, I suppose it must seem like I wanted
to get caught.” (p. 118) Do you believe he did, subconsciously? And if so, does this subconscious urge manifest itself elsewhere in the story?
12. Structurally, Long Drive Home
alternates between excerpts from Glen’s letter to Sara and passages of conventional first-person narration. Do you think Glen is a reliable narrator? Is he more, or less, reliable in the letter? Are there points at which you feel you understand Glen better than he understands himself?
13. Glen becomes increasingly obsessed with Derek Dye: “Maybe I couldn’t blame him for the accident, but if I’d been a bomb waiting to go off that day, he was the one who’d lit the fuse. He was the one who’d made
me a bomb in the first place.” (p. 153) Why do you think Glen ultimately attacks Derek?
14. When Detective Rizzo confronts Glen at the bar, he accuses him of having no conscience: “It’s like you’re broke inside.” (p. 159) Do you believe Glen truly has no conscience? What would you
have told the police?ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. “In traffic,” writes Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic
(Knopf, 2008), “we struggle to stay human.” Physically cut off from other motorists, deprived of language, we are reduced to a brand of vehicle and an anonymous license-plate number. “The more interesting question is not whether some of us are more prone to act like homicidal maniacs once we get behind the wheel but why we all
act differently.” Do you agree with Vanderbilt’s assertion? What else might contribute to boorish behavior on the roads? Have you ever been involved in a road-rage incident?
2. If your book club enjoys this kind of confessional novel, try reading another, such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
. Compare the main characters and their reasons for confessing. Do you believe confessions are, as Detective Rizzo claims, always the product of stress?
3. Try writing your own letter, confessing to something you feel guilty about. Would you ever consider sharing your letter? With whom? How did it feel to put your thoughts on paper? A CONVERSATION WITH WILL ALLISONYour first novel, What You Have Left, has three viewpoint characters and moves back and forth in time. Long Drive Home has one viewpoint character and proceeds, for the most part, chronologically. Did you make a decision at the outset to structure this novel differently?
I did. I wanted to write a book with a strong sense of tension and narrative momentum—more of page-turner—but one that’s still character-based, where plot is a function of character and not vice versa. When you were executive editor of Story magazine, thousand of submissions must have crossed your desk. How did your editorial work influence your writing?
Reading through the submissions—we averaged about 50 a day—I was constantly reminded of the importance of 1) giving the reader a reason to care, and 2) keeping the story moving. I write with an acute awareness that readers have a lot of other things they could be doing besides reading my book. Where did the idea for the novel come from?
I live in New Jersey, in a quiet neighborhood much like the one described in the book—lots of kids, joggers, people walking their dogs. One morning a few years ago, I went out to get the newspaper. A car came flying down the street, going probably twice the speed limit. I remember picking up the paper and thinking I’d like to chuck it at the guy’s windshield, give him a scare. Then I thought, “You’re an idiot, Will. You could kill someone.” Then I thought, “But what if no one saw?” That was the seed of the story. Is the book autobiographical?
No. The circumstances of Glen’s life are similar to my own—I work at home; my wife works in the city; we have a young daughter; we moved here from the Midwest; etc.—but the characters and plot are wholly invented.Has your daughter read the book?
No. She’s only nine. Some of the language isn’t appropriate. Also, I’d hate for her to conflate me with Glen. She knows what the book is about, though. On the way to and from school, when I was writing it, she’d ask what part of the story I was working on. She gave me a lot of input. She still thinks Sara’s name should have been spelled “Sarah.”Is the traffic in New Jersey really as bad as Glen says?
It seemed pretty bad to me, coming from the Midwest. I did some research when I started the book. New Jersey is the nation’s most congested state and has the highest pedestrian fatality rate. A 2006 study found that northern New Jersey has four of the ten most dangerous American cities to drive in—all within fifteen miles of where the story takes place. And a 2008 study ranked New Jersey drivers dead last in their knowledge of basic safety and traffic laws.Was the accident investigation based on a real case?
No, but I did get a lot of help from Detective Arnold Anderson, who recently retired from the Essex County Prosecutors Fatal Accident Unit. Andy read an early draft of the book and very patiently answered my questions. I remember being nervous when I first got in touch with him and said I was writing a book about a guy who tries to cover up his involvement in an accident. I thought Andy might think that’s what I
was doing. He told me later that, yes, he did check up on me after that first phone call, to make sure I was really a writer.Was there any kind of moral you were aiming to impart in Long Drive Home?
I was very interested in the moral implications of Glen’s actions, particularly how he justified—and was later affected by—doing things he himself believed to be morally wrong. But no, I intended no moral lesson for the reader, only moral questions.How much compassion do you expect the reader to show Glen?
Obviously, Glen makes some terrible mistakes. But I do hope readers will put themselves in his shoes. That’s why I chose to tell the story from his viewpoint. If the story had been told from Rizzo’s or Tawana’s viewpoint, Glen might have come off as a clear-cut villain. That to me would have been less interesting.What’s next for you?
Another novel, one that may or may not revisit the characters in Long Drive Home