“An ambitious and warmhearted first novel” (Entertainment Weekly) from Owen King—the epic tale of a young man coming to terms with his life in the aftermath of the spectacularly bizarre failure of his first film.
SAM DOLAN is a young man coming to terms with his life in the process and aftermath of making his first film. He has a difficult relationship with his father, B-movie actor Booth Dolan—a boisterous, opinionated, lying lothario whose screen legacy falls somewhere between cult hero and pathetic. Allie, Sam’s dearly departed mother, was a woman whose only fault, in Sam’s eyes, was her eternal affection for his father. Also included in the cast of indelible characters: a precocious, frequently violent half-sister; a conspiracy-theorist second wife; an Internet-famous roommate; a contractor who can’t stop expanding his house; a happy-go-lucky college girlfriend and her husband, a retired Yankees catcher; the morose producer of a true-crime show; and a slouching indie-film legend. Not to mention a tragic sex monster.
Unraveling the tumultuous, decades-spanning story of the Dolan family’s friends, lovers, and adversaries, Double Feature is about letting go of everything—regret, resentment, dignity, moving pictures, the dead—and taking it again from the top. Against the backdrop of indie filmmaking, college campus life, contemporary Brooklyn, and upstate New York, Owen King’s epic debut novel combines propulsive storytelling with mordant wit and brims with a deep understanding of the trials of ambition and art, of relationships and life, and of our attempts to survive it all.
This reading group guide forDouble Featureincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. 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.
Sam Dolan is a young man just trying to get by. After watching his debut film be destroyed by an unstable assistant before he’d had the chance to show it off, only for it to reemerge later as a dramatically altered cult hit, Sam withdraws, living in near-anonymity and working as a weddingographer. It will take a mountain to shake him out of his sullen complacency—or more precisely, a mountain of a man: B-movie actor Booth Dolan is a boisterous, opinionated, lying lothario whose screen legacy falls somewhere between cult hero and pathetic, and who happens to be Sam’s father. In the hands of Booth and Sam’s precocious, frequently violent half sister Mina, as well as a deep supporting cast—a conspiracy-theorist second wife; an Internet-famous roommate; a contractor who can’t stop expanding his house; a retired Yankees catcher; the morose producer of a true crime show; and a slouching indie film legend—the tumultuous, decades-spanning story of the Dolan family’s friends, lovers, and adversaries rises up to confront Sam when he’d most like to forget it. Double Feature is about letting go of everything—regret, resentment, dignity, moving pictures, the dead—and taking it again from the top.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. As we follow Sam through the narrative of Double Feature, how does our perception of Who We Are evolve? Alongside or differently than its director’s? What was your first impression of the conceit and goal of Sam’s original film?
2. On page 43, we first learn of Sam’s central criterion for judging movies: dishonesty. How did this strike you initially as a critical goalpost? How does Sam’s journey affect his evaluative rubric? Where does Sam end up, in terms of his judgment of movies?
3. Sam explains the purpose behind Who We Are as giving shape to the idea that his generation was uniquely screwed, and “their shared realization that nothing made sense until it was too late to be changed, that they were never given anything like a real chance” (p. 46). Is this statement true of Sam’s generation, or any generation? Does every college graduate think this is their lot in life?
4. Most of the main characters in Double Feature revolve around Booth like planets around his massive sun. What did you think of the charming bastard? How did your relationship with him evolve through the course of the novel?
5. As Booth’s friends and family alternately attack and defend him, a general refrain of “You don’t know him like I know him” is frequently heard. Compare how this statement is used, particularly by Sam, Mina, and Allie. Does anyone know the true Booth?
6. Compare Allie’s and Booth’s life goals for Sam on page 79. How do these affect Sam throughout his life? Does Sam listen to either of them? Which advice would you give?
7. One of Double Feature’s many themes is the purpose of movies. Booth, Sam, Allie, and Tess all give their own rationales or explanations for what movies should do. What’s your position on movies? Are they pure fun, or something larger? Escapism, or something more?
8. The structure of Double Feature allows us a peek into the lives of Sam’s parents. How do these sections shape your understanding of Booth and Allie, and therefore Sam?
9. Sam’s initial difficulty in connecting with Tess is his fear of disappointing her. Where are the origins of Sam’s relationship with disappointment? How has his fear of disappointing others, and being disappointed himself, shaped his life?
10. Booth’s speech on page 240 partially explains the title Double Feature. How does Booth’s concept of the double feature influence Sam? How does it influence your understanding of the novel? What other interpretations did you make of the title, before or after reading the speech?
11. Sam frequently refers to Tess’s influence on him as making him feel naked. How is she able to accomplish this where others, like Polly, cannot? What does this encourage Sam to realize about himself? Can vulnerability be a good thing?
12. As readers we get to observe as both Sam and Booth make their only directorial efforts. How do their directing styles differ? What does this say about their characters, for good or ill? How do you think you would or should behave in the director’s chair?
13. What’s the deal with E.T.? Spielberg’s film about the little lost alien is a recurrent subject throughout Double Feature. How does its significance for each of the characters help explain their relationship to the movies and to each other? What do you make of E.T.?
14. Read the Jack Gilbert poem “A Brief For the Defense” that reverberates through Double Feature. What resonance does it have with the themes of the novel? How does it help explain both Booth and Sam’s attitude, or change in attitude?
15. Although Sam thinks of himself as an adult as he makes Who We Are, it isn’t until “The Long Weekend” that he truly grows up. What does growing up mean in the context of the novel? What are the main realizations Sam has about being an adult, especially in relation to Tess and Booth? Do you agree with this conception of adulthood?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. From Orson Welles’s Yorick to Devil of the Acropolis, from Cheeks and The Pit to Quel Beau Parleur!, one of Double Feature’s most entertaining tropes is the slew of fake movies that populate the book. Whether it’s a family feature or a thriller, Hitchcock’s lost attempt at claymation or Jurassic Park 11, what movie do you think should exist but doesn’t? Flesh it out—cast it, write a sample scene or three, design the poster, pick out the soundtrack, and definitely pick a killer title. Share your mockup masterpiece with your group.
2. It would be crazy not to watch a film with your group after reading a novel starring so many movie-mad maniacs. You could choose something from Double Feature itself—E.T., perhaps? Or Dog Day Afternoon?—or simply pick something the book reminds you of, whether a cult hit, comedy, or post-college coming-of-age tale. Whatever you choose, be sure to do it up right—dim the lights, pop the popcorn, project that sucker if you can, and of course remember Booth’s rule: “Thou shalt not speak during the movies!”
3. Naturally, the character of Booth is largely inspired by the larger-than-life career and, well, life of the inimitable Orson Welles. Do some research on the cinema master—read one of the books King cites in the credits, watch a documentary, or just get sucked into the deep black hole that is the Orson Welles YouTube search (“Frozen Peas” and “Wine Commercial” are particularly stunning highlights). What are the parallels between Booth and his idol? How does the character of Orson cast a shadow over Sam’s life and Double Feature itself?
Owen King is the author of the novel Double Feature and We’re All in This Together: A Novella and Stories. He is the coauthor of Intro to Alien Invasion and the coeditor of Who Can Save Us Now? Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories. He lives in Upstate New York with his wife, the writer Kelly Braffet, and their daughter.