Whale Talk

By: 

Chris Crutcher

Number of Pages: 

220

Minimum grade level: 

5th

There's bad news and good news about the Cutter High School swim team. The bad news is that they don't have a pool. The good news is that only one of them can swim anyway. A group of misfits brought together by T. J. Jones (the J is redundant), the Cutter All Night Mermen struggle to find their places in a school that has no place for them. T.J. is convinced that a varsity letter jacket-exclusive, revered, the symbol (as far as T.J. is concerned) of all that is screwed up at Cutter High-will also be an effective tool. He's right. He's also wrong. Still, it's always the quest that counts. And the bus on which the Mermen travel to swim meets soon becomes the space where they gradually allow themselves to talk, to fit, to grow. Together they'll fight for dignity in a world where tragedy and comedy dance side by side, where a moment's inattention can bring lifelong heartache, and where true acceptance is the only prescription for what ails us.

Discussion questions

Spoiler alert! Some of the questions contain key elements of the plot. Do not read if you don't want to know what happens!

  1. After saying "Back up and find the story", T.J. begins Chapter One with seven pages about himself before he gets into the actual plot. Why do you think he does this?
  2. T.J. narrates the story-after it's over. What qualities make him a good storyteller? What do you think the story would have been like if Mott had told it? What if it had been told by Rich Marshall's friend Mike Barbour, the football star?
  3. How would you characterize T.J.'s relationships with the other boys on the swim team? Are they his friends? Apart from the swim team, does T.J. have any friends at Cutter High?
  4. T.J. says he believes "there are no black swimmers in the swimming hall of fame because swimming is no damn fun." What do you make of his attitude towards swimming and the swim team?
  5. T.J. praises his girlfriend Carly as being perfect for him, since she "requires so little." Do you agree with T.J.'s judgment? Why or why not? What about the other girls and women in T.J.'s story-Alicia, Kristen Sweetwater, T.J.'s mom? Do they seem to require any more than Carly does?
  6. Besides being a writer, Whale Talk author Chris Crutcher is also a family therapist and child protection specialist. Did you notice some places in the book where the family therapist kind of "takes over" from the writer? Does this intrude on the story so that it seems preachy or does Crutcher make it fit in? How does the information about battered women, abused children and desperate men help you understand the characters' behavior?
  7. Apart from T.J., who are your favorite characters in Whale Talk? Why?
  8. What do you think of Georgia's decision to turn first Heidi, then Alicia and her boys-whom T.J. calls "Thing One and Thing Two"-over to T.J.'s family? To what extent does this decision cause the tragic climax of the book?
  9. At the end of Chapter One (page 18), T.J. recalls, "suddenly I hear the voice the universe-and Simet-wants me to hear. It says, 'Swim."" Is this just T.J.'s sense of humor or does he, in retrospect, think what happened was part of some cosmic plan? (He talks more about the universe on page 20, after a few paragraphs about the late tennis star Arthur Ashe. And, of course, T.J.'s real name is The Tao.)
  10. Whale Talk can be looked at as a novel about growing up. In what ways do the events of the story change T.J. from the boy he was to the man he becomes-the man telling the story?

If you liked this book try

  • Slot Machine by Chris Lynch
  • Stotan by Chris Crutcher
  • Vision Quest by Terry Davis
  • The Whistling Toilets by Randy Powell
  • Wrestling Sturbridge by Rich Wallace

Created in part with funds granted by the Oregon State Library under the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the Oregon State Library.