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The Vanishing Moon by Joseph Coulson


About the book:
A chorus of candid and poignant voices narrates this novel about a
working-class American family who struggles to succeed through five
turbulent decades, from the Depression to the Vietnam War. First,
Stephen Tollman looks back on his early adventures with his older
brother, Philip, as the boys try to shield their younger siblings from the
vulnerability of financial ruin. Years later, the vibrant and ambitious
Katherine Lennox mesmerizes Stephen and Philip as they both tragically
fall in love with her. Then, Philips son James comes of age in the 1960s,
striving to understand his fathers deep anger amid a summer of
assassinations and civil unrest.
Together, these voices create an insightful, beautiful, and deeply
psychological story about the American working class, about the strength
and strain of family bonds, and finally, about hardships that haunt the human psyche over a
About the author:
Joseph Coulson is the author of three books of poetry and a full-length play, and has been the
recipient of a Gray Writing Fellowship and the Tompkins Award in Poetry. The Vanishing Moon
is his first novel. Coulson lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
Discussion Questions:
1. To what extent is the Tollman family a microcosm of Americas last century? Does their
family dynamic reflect the nations character as a whole?
2. Discuss the literary elements Joseph Coulson uses to evoke a broad range of characters. Which
scenes seemed particularly vivid to you, and what devices do you credit with this vibrancy?
3. What is the effect of the varying points of view and first-person narration? In the end, is this
essentially Stephens story, or are assorted protagonists given equal significance?
4. How were the brothers perceptions of women formed? What were the repercussions of losing
both sisters (including the newborn twin) and growing to adulthood with the knowledge of these
losses? To what do you attribute the different temperaments among the Tollman brothers?
5. Phil demonstrates a compassion for frailty on many occasions, such as the abuse of Myron
when they are children and the destruction of the birds nesting in his yard when he lives next
door to Knute. What determines whether he responds to a situation with tenderness or with rage?
Is there anyone who could have quelled his pain?
6. Describe the various backdrops created by Coulson: Cleveland, Mayfield, Detroit, the West
Coast. Do these descriptions reflect their corresponding emotional landscapes presented in the
7. What accounts for the gradual separation between Jessica and her sons? Was her diminished
role in their lives inevitable?
8. While the novels early chapters portray severe material poverty, they reflect a family with
rich emotional bonds. What does the novel convey about the nature of comfort, in its tangible
and intangible forms? Was the world of the brothers youth more dangerous than the one they
inhabited as adults?
9. What does each generation express about the nature of love and commitment, including
Jessica? What was the source of Katherines appeal-a force strong enough to captivate both Phil
and Stephen for so many years? What prevented Phil from remaining with her? What prevents
James and Maria from staying together?
10. Discuss the notion of social dissenters in the novel. Which characters are the true rebels?
Who are the artists?
11. Does Lethea Strong inhabit a world that is very different from the Tollmans? Is her death a
more honorable one than Jessicas?
12. What is the "large, incomprehensible thing" that Stephen discovers he must do after
discussing women with Jake at the restaurant bar? What is the significance of the call from
Carrie Ann while he is immersed in Katherines realm?
13. How would you characterize the Tollman brothers legacy? Is this a family in which history
repeats itself, or will brothers Jim and Paul bring about a generation of healing?
14. In the last paragraph of The Vanishing Moon, Stephen asserts that he and Phil are alike. Do
you agree with him? He also observes that memory is all. For him, and for the other narrators, is
there a common reality expressed by these memories?
15. Does this family history reflect your own in any way? What are your recollections or
storytelling traditions regarding these chapters in American history?
16. The novels epigraph, from Li-Young Lees poem "The Moon from Any Window,"
encapsulates the individual nature of perception. Who and what vanishes in this novel? In what
way does each narrator present a different perspective on loss? And, like the moon, what remains
constant in the end?
Critical acclaim for The Vanishing Moon:
"The Vanishing Moon is a beautifully told story about family bonds, love, loss, and the power of
memory over our lives. This is Joseph Coulsons first novel, and I hope not his last."-Lori Kranz,
The Bloomsbury Review
"Coulsons richly textured narrative abounds in passion and wonder. Loss may be catastrophic,
but for Coulson it is never final. His real subject is not loss but the art of losing, the infinitely
varied ways in which people try to live on in the wake of loss."-The San Diego Union Tribune
"Assured and purposeful, first-time novelist Coulson infuses each surprising and evocative
moment with great feeling and mythic resonance . . . Coulson writes with surpassing clarity and
dignity about grief, anger, sexual passion, the need for art, brotherly love, and the resilience of
good women, creating a somberly beautiful family saga."-Booklist
"[The Vanishing Moon] explores human frailty with the simplicity and directness of haiku . . .
The novel at times achieves the quiet beauty of William Maxwells finest work-generous,
episodic, elegiac but not sentimental."-The Nation