The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

A Novel by Chris Fuhrman

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About the book

Set in Savannah, Georgia, in the early 1970s, this is a novel of the anarchic joy of youth and encounters with the concerns of early adulthood. Francis Doyle, Tim Sullivan, and their three closest friends are altar boys at Blessed Heart Catholic Church and eighth-grade classmates at the parish school. They are also inveterate pranksters, artistic, and unimpressed by adult authority. When Sodom vs. Gomorrah ‘74, their collaborative comic book depicting Blessed Heart’s nuns and priests gleefully breaking the seventh commandment, falls into the hands of the principal, the boys, certain that their parents will be informed, conspire to create an audacious diversion. Woven into the details of the boys’ preparations for the stunt are touching, hilarious renderings of the school day routine and the initiatory rites of male adolescence, from the first serious kiss to the first serious hangover.

About the author

Chris Fuhrman grew up as a Catholic in Savannah, Georgia, where he was born in 1960. He received his master’s degree from Columbia University. Fuhrman died of cancer in 1991 while working on the final revision of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, his first and only novel.

For discussion

  1. Three dogs that appear in the book seem to have special significance. How do the black dog that interrupts the church service, the sick and injured dog that Tim kills out of sympathy, and the dog that attacks Francis the evening of his first night with Margie mark significant moments in the book? Why does Tim call the churchgoing dog, “as holy as anything else in this world?” What change can be observed in Francis when he watches his friend react so violently to the stray dog’s suffering? Why might a third dog appear before such an important moment in Francis’ young adult life?
  3. On the way to the wild animal park, Tim shares some wisdom from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. How does the following quote apply to Tim’s life: “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.”
  5. More than the other boys, Francis seems to feel especially close to Tim. Do you imagine that Tim feels the same way?
  7. Do you believe Francis really doubts the existence of God, or do you feel that he will regain a certain amount of faith as he grows older? Was he simply following Tim’s example, or was he thinking for himself?
  9. Should Blessed Heart be held responsible for the boys’ skepticism of religious doctrine, or were they helpless in the face of boyhood rebellion? Were the boys destined to question their faith?
  11. Why is the eighth chapter titled “Southern Gothic?” In what ways does the content and narrative style of this portion of the book recall the traditions of southern gothic literature? Should the title be seen as sarcastic, referential, or both?
  13. Why, in the chapter “Welcome to Horrible Movies,” does Francis say, “I thought this must be how it felt to be married.”?
  15. Consider Francis’ discussion of Friday night horror movies on page 145. How might his reaction to the movies reference the course of the book in general?
  17. Does it seem out of character when Francis punches his reflection in Margie’s mirror?
  19. Do you think Francis tells Margie that he saw the ghost? Should he?
  21. Discuss Craig Dockery’s character. He is initially presented as a cowardly bully, but in what ways is he also portrayed sympathetically?
  23. In a tragic way, the gang succeeds in accomplishing with the Wildcat Caper what they set about to do. Do you think Tim would be pleased to know that they are now infamous, even though he paid with his life?
  25. Do you agree with Rusty’s comment that Tim was destined to die young, or do you see it as an attempt to assign meaning to a seemingly senseless loss? If Tim lived to be an adult, what do you think he would be like?
  27. At the end of the novel, Francis refers to those early parts of life “when things could still happen for the first time,” and when the company one kept determined to a large degree who that person would grow up to be. Do you have certain memories that stand out above others as shaping a part of your adult character?
  29. Francis’ stories are recalled with such detail and clarity. Do you have a sense of his age as he narrates? Does the last chapter change or confirm your assumptions?
  31. Do Tim and Francis journey together or apart?

Also of interest

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, a film directed by Peter Care, starring Emile Hirsch (as Francis Doyle), Kieran Culkin (as Tim Sullivan), Jena Malone (as Margie Flynn), Jodie Foster (as Sister Assumpta), and Vincent D’Onofrio (as Father Casey).