Study Guide

Dead End in Norvelt Lies and Deceit

By Jack Gantos

Lies and Deceit

"It's more of a love war movie." I lied. It was totally a war movie except for when the soon-to-be-dead Marines talked about their girlfriends. (1.23)

This seems like a small lie, and not really harmful, but it establishes a pattern of dishonest behavior on the part of Jack and his entire family. Are white lies nothing but a gateway drug? Once you tell one, are you just a short slide away from rock-bottom and checking yourself into Liars Anonymous?

I knew it [the ticket for the weeds] was going to have to be a secret I'd pay for myself. (4.4)

You know what they say about good intentions serving as paving stones to a particularly undesirable destination? Here, Jack has the best of intentions: he plans to pay for the ticket himself, and wants to avoid any further trouble with his Mom. And we all know what happens next. (Mr. Spizz tricks him into buying the lethal rat poison.)

"Don't you dare mow this, mister […] Don't you dare!" […]

In my mind I heard her say, 'Don't you dare mow this or I'll tell your father you fired that sniper rifle.' (4.32-33)

Secrets can be as deadly as any loaded sniper rifle. Here, this ploy doesn't work for Jack's mom, since Jack is caught between conflicting loyalties to his mom and dad. But just think—if Jack had just 'fessed up to his dad, this whole story might never have happened.

I knew he was up to something Mom wouldn't like, but he knew I could mostly keep a secret except for the times my nose would betray me. All Mom had to do to get the truth out of me was hold me by the chin, look me in the eye, and ask her question. If my nose stayed dry, I was telling the truth. If I leaked one drop of blood, then she knew I was lying. (4.53)

Here's the low-tech lie detector in action. And here's a thought: if Jack's nose doesn't bleed anymore, that should mean he's able to lie. Are we supposed to think that he's grown up enough to know that he shouldn't lie—or grown up enough to be able to lie when he needs to? Is lying just part of being a grown up?

And if I can't trust you then it makes me realize that you can't trust yourself to make good decisions. Remember, a person first lies to himself before he lies to others. (15.61)

What does Jack's mom mean by this? How do we lie to ourselves before we lie to others? (Actually, the best way to lie is to lie to yourself so convincingly that you don't even think you're lying. Now that's talent.)

Is it really true what you said about Adams and Jefferson having almost the same last words at almost the same time? […]

Most of what I say is true [...] But if you don't know your history you won't know the difference between the truth and wishful thinking. (16.20-21)

This is a classier, more literary example of something like the old tourists-getting-kidnapped-for-their-kidneys story. Miss Volker's story here is very much in the urban legend vein (wow…we just can't get away from the gore with this novel, can we?). How are these types of stories not really lies? What purposes do they serve?

"Good Norvelt people wouldn't do that," Mom replied. "People trust each other around here." (25.27)

Well, not so much. It turns out that Mom has a pretty naïve view of the world, as we find out later after Mr. Greene publishes his editorial. The town is losing the sense of trust for its neighbors that it once had. Is this one way that a town can die?

We can trust each other. (25.31)

Jack's mom says this shortly after she brings up the idea that Norvelters trust each other (25.27). In what way is this ironic? Where do we see the family members genuinely trusting each other? And, come on, does she really even believe what she's saying—or is she just lying to herself?

Believe me, I know how she operates. She says one thing when she means another. (26.84)

Here's an example of Miss Volker not being completely truthful with Mr. Spizz about her intentions toward him. Her not wanting to marry him (as he suspects here) really doesn't come as a surprise to us, since we have already found out that she agreed to the marriage in a "weak moment" (10.56). Seems like she might not be learning from her history, either.

"She may be old, but she's a cold-blooded killer," he howled, and hung up. (26.96)

How's this for dishonesty? Mr. Spizz knows perfectly well who the real killer is (he is). There's a double meaning in the "cold-blooded," though. Remember that Miss Volker has spurned his attempts at sweet-talking her into marriage. So, you know, she's killed his love. Or something. Really, dude, that's no excuse.