Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Means includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Douglas Brunt. 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.
The Means tells the story of three individuals who have one thing in common: ambition. Samantha Davis is a lawyer-turned-journalist who wants to report honest news that really matters. Tom Pauley is a successful attorney in North Carolina who gets tapped by the GOP to run for governor, and Mitchell Mason is the president of the United States, a Democrat, and a good politician with his own set of morals. When Tom Pauley decides to run against Mitchell Mason in the presidential election, the three characters become entangled in a news story that changes the outcome of the election and the future of America. The Means explores the face of contemporary politics and raises the question of whether the ends do justify the means.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. “The production reminds her of the image of a duck on water. On the surface, calm and beautiful, while beneath the surface the bony, orange legs are thrashing like mad” (12). Discuss this introduction to Samantha Davis and her new career as a high-profile news reporter. How would you characterize her? How does this image foreshadow events in the story? Do you think the duck working hard but retaining a certain kind of decorum is a metaphor for the job of the president of the United States?
2. On page 23, Samantha notes, “when meeting other female on-air talent, she always gets an up-and-down from them the way she would from a drunk guy in a bar.” Comment on the male/female dynamics in the novel, paying particular attention to Samantha’s interactions. Do the women treat Samantha more harshly than her male counterparts? Does her femininity inform her reporting style? Consider Samantha’s relationship with Connor Marks.
3. Discuss the ways in which conservative and liberal ideas are represented. Is Tom Pauley the archetype of a Republican? Is Mitchell Mason a typical Democrat?
4. On page 65, Pauley recounts a childhood memory of his Uncle Neil telling him from behind the glass partition in jail: “when each of us is born we’re all given a big shit pie. And every once in a while we have to cut off a slice and eat it.” Do you think Tom agrees with his uncle’s idea about life and fairness? Would you characterize Tom as a fair man? Why or why not?
5. Revisit the scene, beginning on page 107, when Samantha runs into the police officer who first introduced her to Connor Marks. What do you think he means when he says “it’s called journalism . . . with a big J” (108)? Does this scene act as a hinge for Samantha and her career? Is it because of this brief conversation that Samantha has a revelation about Connor Marks?
6. Mason is not portrayed as an upstanding citizen. How would you characterize him? Are his flaws a detriment to his presidency, or are they what make him human? Do you think that Mason’s character comments on our larger cultural obsession with the private affairs of heads of state? Ultimately, do you think questionable morals affect the ability of leaders to govern fairly and justly? Why or why not?
7. Do you agree that the pursuit of ambition is a theme of The Means? Is ambition the end goal for these characters? Consider Davis, Pauley, and Mason in your response.
8. On page 149, one of Mason’s staffers thinks to himself “things are changing here”—an echo of a sentiment uttered earlier by Pauley and his wife Allison after he wins the governor’s race in North Carolina. What sort of change do you detect in the novel? Which character changed the most? Is this change good, bad, or both?
9. At the beginning of Part Two there is an epigraph from Winston Churchill: “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire” (163). Epigraphs and quotations play an interesting role in The Means. Not only do they provide a framework for the novel, they also suggest a larger conversation about politics in western culture. To which character(s) do you think this Churchill quotation is directed? Do you think this quotation also participates in a bigger discussion about how we view our politicians?
10. “Do you think humans are basically good or basically bad?” (231). Answer Reese Kinard’s question, using Davis, Pauley, Mason, Monica Morris, and Connor Marks as examples. What reasons do you think Reese had for believing human beings are inherently evil?
11. Is Monica Morris to blame for Mason losing the election? What did Samantha mean when she rhetorically asked Connor “Was Monica Morris real . . . Or was she just real enough?” (309). In what ways is Monica “real”? In what ways is she “real enough”?
12. Although to varying degrees, both Mason and Pauley are described as easily tempted by women who are not their wives. And even First Lady Evelyn Mason cheats on her husband, however discreetly. Are the characters in The Means especially flawed, or are they just human?
13. In what way(s) is this novel the story of Samantha Davis’s success? In what way(s) is it the story of Tom Pauley’s demise? Ultimately, whose story is this?
14. What is Samantha’s motivation for tricking Monica Morris into a confession? Do you think she righted her wrong? Is it possible to fix mistakes of this size? Why or why not?
15. What is the price that Pauley mentions on the last page of the book? Do you agree, “the price was too high” (332)? Did his means justify his end?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The Means explores a current cultural moment—the exposure of the underbelly of American politics. Have a movie/TV night with your book club and watch the films Primary Colors (1998), All the King’s Men (2006), and the Netflix original series House of Cards (2013). Who are the villains in each of these stories? Is there overlap between any characters in The Means and the characters in Primary Colors, All the King’s Men, and House of Cards? What conclusions can your book club draw about the current state of politics? Are these stories farfetched or do they hit close to home?
2. Read author Douglas Brunt’s first novel, Ghosts of Manhattan, with your book club. How do the two stories relate to one another? Is there a common theme that links the two? What argument do you think Brunt is making in these novels about contemporary American culture? Do you agree with his point of view? Why or why not?
A Conversation with Douglas Brunt
The Means is your second novel and the first set in Washington, D.C. What was the difference between writing the first book and this new novel? Do you think the two speak to one another in terms of theme? Did Ghosts of Manhattan inform The Means?, either in terms of content or craft choices?
The first difference is that when I wrote Ghosts of Manhattan, I was still running a software company and writing only in spare moments. When I wrote The Means, I was a full-time writer. Writing full time is a luxury, though the risk is complacency.
The second significant difference is that I did much more primary research for The Means. I interviewed a number of people who have worked in the Oval Office, on national campaigns, on Capitol Hill, for super PACs. This helped to inform the story. I did some research for Ghosts of Manhattan as well, but much more was a result of my knowledge of Wall Street, having lived in New York so long and with so many friends working in that industry.
Both books speak to the essential nature of mankind. Both observe complex characters inside a framework, in these cases the professional environments of finance and politics, and explore how characters respond when faced with competition, temptation, consequences of their actions. Both books are cynical but not without hope.
The first book didn’t inform the second in any conscious way. The books are different ways to observe human traits play out in a story.
Describe the research that went into the making of this novel.
I did a lot of interviews for the book, both one-on-one interviews and group interviews, usually over dinner and drinks. For the one-on-one interviews, I would begin with a lot of prepared questions, then the interview would evolve into a casual conversation. For the group interviews, I asked very few questions. I tried to become invisible after a time so people would relax and forget I was there. I wanted to listen to how they talked as much as what they talked about.
Were there any particular challenges writing as a man from a woman’s point of view? How did you put yourself in Samantha’s shoes, so to speak?
Moving from voice to voice is challenging, especially when changing gender. Before I write in a person’s voice, I spend time trying to get the voice right in my head. This process is similar to what I imagine a method actor would do when getting into character. I try to picture the character in my head, what she feels, what she says. I need to be able to see the face and physical form of the person. Once I have that, I can start writing, and getting the dialogue down feels more like eavesdropping on a conversation happening in my imagination.
Like Samantha, you made a career change from former CEO to author. How did you come to be a writer? Do your two careers share any similarities?
I came to be a writer because I was not satisfied with my career as a CEO and I love writing and literature. I started to write my first book as a way to relax while running the company, especially during the frequent travel I had to do. The career change was a risk.
Samantha took a similar risk by leaving a career in which she was thriving by every measure except happiness. Being excellent at something can sometimes be a trap.
Do you think that The Means exposes a reality of American politics and mainstream media or exaggerates a minor aspect of it? Do you hope to break any stereotypes with this story?
The Means drops an interesting story into a credible backdrop. My aim is to give an inside look at politics that is informative to a reader. The core story line of the deception involving Monica Morris is not impossible but is not meant to expose anything.
A stereotype of politics that I found to be inaccurate while doing research is that the people who work in the business of politics (staffers, reporters, consultants) are not at each other’s throats along partisan lines. The rest of the world is more partisan than the people in the business. These are people doing a job who have kids, need to pay tuition and a mortgage. They get to see each other up close and recognize in each other a regular man or woman making a life.
As an alumnus of Duke University, do you feel any rivalry with Tar Heels alum Tom Pauley? Is there any one character to whom you relate most? Least?
I don’t feel any rivalry with Tom Pauley, though I love the Duke and UNC rivalry. I chose Chapel Hill because I know and like the area and could use that for the story. I also think North Carolina has an interesting political history.
I didn’t consciously write myself into any of the characters, though I guess some measure of that happens as a matter of course. It’s difficult to rank the characters as I relate to them. I’d enjoy having a drink with any of them.
What would you name as the major theme(s) of this story? What do you hope readers will remember about The Means? Do you agree that all of the characters have ambition as their Achilles’ heel?
The major theme of the novel is the tension between human nature and the systems that manage human nature. In Ghosts of Manhattan, the framework is a large investment bank and associated federal oversight and regulation. In The Means, the framework is our political system. We want a political system to bring out the best in human nature and curb the worst. As Churchill suggests, our system is badly flawed but is the best we’ve ever designed.
An extension of this is to explore what happens to a system as it evolves over time, with the times. Our framework gets pushed and pulled over the years. Politicians view a policy objective to be right, then are willing to commit a number of wrongs to see the objective met. In their minds, they act as a force for good, but lose sight of the collateral damage that may be on a greater scale than the good they pursue. Over centuries of bending and breaking procedures and cutting corners, we’re left with an aging democracy that may no longer be able to bring out the best and curb the worst of human nature.
Share with us the meaning behind the title The Means. Is it reductive to say that it is Tom Pauley’s actions that are featured as the means for success? Where do you stand on the issue of the ends justifying the means?
The core fraud of the novel is the Monica Morris scandal perpetrated on Mitchell Mason, but every large and small event in the novel has an end and a means to it. For example, Tom Pauley showed he was willing to break the rules to win the Darby case early in the novel. Every reader of this novel in each day will face a decision about something they want and what they’re willing to do for it. In most cases, these decisions don’t involve felonies, but it’s the same principle.
Through the novel, I’ve said as much as I’ll say about where I stand on it. Reese Kinard states her view that human nature is essentially bad and needs to be held in check by political systems, but even the best political systems corrode and over time human nature always wins out.
You quote a number of famous men in The Means, notably Winston Churchill and Niccolò Machiavelli. Describe how these two men, very different in their political ideologies, speak to or for the characters in The Means.
I expect that Churchill and Machiavelli would have a great mutual respect. Even with different views, they would have a kind of friendship similar to that of the people in the business of politics whom I’ve met and who are in this novel.
I reference different types of people because this is not a partisan book. It’s just about politics.
Can you share with us any news of upcoming writing projects? Will we get to meet any of these characters again in future stories?
I’m working on a new novel that is not related to either of the first two.