1. Even though the subjects of this collection are varied, the author creates a consistent tone. How would you describe Steve Almond’s America? What concerns were present throughout the entire collection?
2. What characteristics of Wolf Pinkas (the immigrant protagonist from “A Dream of Sleep”) contrast with those of natural-born characters?
3. “Akedah” and “First Date Back” feature protagonists who have returned to America from foreign wars. How does that impact their experience of America?
4. How would you describe Billy Clamm, from the title story? How does his physical appearance inform his character? What do we understand about his relationship with his father, and how does that relationship influence his decisions in the story? What elements of his character foreshadow his final decision in the Duckboat?
5. In the story “Tamalpais,” what is the importance of the narrator revealing his family situation—a “distracted mother” and a “psychologically troubled kid sister” (89–90)? What does Austin do for Charlotte that is outside the bounds of his job? Why do you think he feels obligated to help her? What does the story tell us about obligation and commitment—to family, to work, to ourselves?
6. In “What the Bird Says,” Jims says his father knew that “women craved love, that a calm, sustained recognition of their desirability went a lot farther than they cared to admit” (117). Is it only the women in this story that seek validation? How does the old man’s illness change his position and place within the family? How does the bird represent this change?
7. In “The Darkness Together,” what do we sense about the way Hank views women? When he spies the teenage girls walking on the train he describes them as “awaiting trespass.” What language implies an abnormal relationship between Hank and his mother? What might the stranger’s presence on the train tell Hank about his own desires?
8. Describe the ways that “Akedah” differs from the rest of the collection. How does the second-person point of view change the reading of the story? Is your emotional reaction to the story different from the others in the collection? How would you describe the tone at the end of the story?
9. What does “First Date Back” tell us about the lasting impact of trauma? What is your sense of Tedesco’s control over his actions in the story? How do you interpret the line “He wanted to warn her” (192)? Does it affect your sympathy for the character?
10. What do we know about Wolf Pinkas at the beginning of “A Dream of Sleep”? Can we gather any clues about his past from the context? What do you make of the assertion that Americans view a body only “as an object of desire” (page 196)? How does the young woman who intrudes on the cemetery treat the space in contrast to Pinkas? What does this treatment say about their respective regards for place, and what it represents? Why is Pinkas drawn to help the young woman, and why is she resistant to that help?