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What's Eating Gilbert Grape



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About The Book

Just about everything in Endora, Iowa (pop. 1,091 and dwindling) is eating Gilbert Grape, a twenty-four-year-old grocery clerk who dreams only of leaving. His enormous mother, once the town sweetheart, has been eating nonstop ever since her husband's suicide, and the floor beneath her TV chair is threatening to cave in. Gilbert's long-suffering older sister, Amy, still mourns the death of Elvis, and his knockout younger sister has become hooked on makeup, boys, and Jesus -- in that order. But the biggest event on the horizon for all the Grapes is the eighteenth birthday of Gilbert's younger brother, Arnie, who is a living miracle just for having survived so long. As the Grapes gather in Endora, a mysterious beauty glides through town on a bicycle and rides circles around Gilbert, until he begins to see a new vision of his family and himself....
With this wry portrait of small-town Iowa -- and a young man's life at the crossroads -- Peter Hedges created a classic American novel "charged with sardonic intelligence" (Washington Post Book World).


Chapter One

Standing with my brother Arnie on the edge of town has become a yearly ritual.

My brother Arnie is so excited because in minutes or hours or sometime today trucks upon trailers upon campers are going to drive into our home town of Endora, Iowa. One truck will carry the Octopus, another will carry the Tilt-A-Whirl with its blue and red cars, two trucks will bring the Ferris wheel, the games will be towed, and most important, the horses from the merry-go-round will arrive.

For Arnie, this is better than Christmas. This beats the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny: all those stupid figures that only kids and retarded adults seem to stomach. Arnie is a retard. He's about to turn eighteen and my family is planning an enormous party. Doctors said we'd be lucky if he lived to be ten. Ten came and went and now the doctors are saying, "Any time now, Arnie could go at any time." So every night my sisters and me, and my mom too, go to bed wondering if he will wake up in the morning. Some days you want him to live, some days you don't. At this particular moment, I've a good mind to push him in front of the oncoming traffic.

My oldest sister, Amy, has fixed us a picnic feast. In a thermos was a quart of black cherry Kool-Aid, all of which Arnie drank in such a hurry that above his top lip is a purplish mustache. One of the first things you should know about Arnie is that he always has traces of some food on his face -- Kool-Aid or ketchup or toast crumbs. His face is a kind of bulletin board for the four major food groups.

Arnie is the gentlest guy, but he can surprise this brother. In the summertime, he catches grasshoppers and sticks them in this metal tab on the mailbox, holding them there, and then he brings down the metal flag, chopping off the grasshopper heads. He always giggles hysterically when he does this, having the time of his life. But last night, when we were sitting on the porch eating ice cream, a countless sea of grasshopper bodies from summers past must have appeared to him, because he started weeping and sobbing like the world had ended. He kept saying, "I killed 'em, I killed 'em." And me and Amy, we held him close, patted his back and told him it was okay.

Arnie cried for hours, cried himself to sleep. Makes this brother wonder what kind of a world it would be if all the surviving Nazis had such remorse. I wonder if it ever occurs to them what they did, and if it ever sinks in to a point that their bodies ache from the horrible mess they made. Or are they so smart that they can lie to us and to themselves? The beautiful thing about Arnie is that he's too stupid to lie. Or too smart.

I'm standing with binoculars, looking down Highway 13; there is no sign of our annual carnival. The kid is on his knees, his hands rummaging around in the picnic basket. Having already eaten both bags of potato chips, both peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and both chocolate donuts, he locates a green apple and bites into it.

By trying to ignore Arnie's lip-smacking noises, I am attempting the impossible. You see, he chews as if he's just found his mouth and the sounds are that of good, sloppy sex. My brother's slurps and gulps make me want to procreate with an assortment of Endora's finest women.

It's the twenty-first of June, the first day of summer, the longest day of the year. It isn't even 7:00 a.m. yet and here I stand, little brother in tow. Somewhere some smart person still sleeps.



Bread crust and peanut-butter chunks fall off Arnie's T-shirt as he stretches it down past his knees. "Gilbert?"

"What is it?"

"How many more miles?"

"I don't know."

"How many, how many more till the horses and stuff?"

"Three million."

"Oh, okay."

Arnie blows out his lips with a sound like a motorboat and he circles the picnic basket, drool flying everywhere. Finally, he sits down Indian style and starts quietly to count the miles.

I busy myself throwing gravel rocks at the Endora, Iowa, town sign. The sign is green with white printing and, except for a divot that I left last year at this time with my rock throwing, it is in excellent condition. It lists Endora's population at 1,091, which I know can't be right, because yesterday my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Brainer, choked on a chicken bone while sitting on her porch swing. A great loss is felt by no one.

Mrs. Brainer retired years ago. She lived half a block from the town square, so I'd see her pretty much every day, always smiling at me as if she expected me to forget all the pain she'd inflicted. I swear this woman smiled all the time. Once, as she was leaving the store, her sack of groceries ripped. Cans of peaches and fruit cocktail dropped out onto the floor, cutting open her toes. My boss and I saw this happen. She pushed up a real big grin as the tears fell off her cheeks. I resacked her cans, but she couldn't stop smiling and crying, and her toes couldn't stop bleeding.

I'm told that when they found her on the porch, her hands were up around her throat, and there were red scratch marks on her neck, in her mouth, and pieces of flesh under her fingernails. I wonder if she was smiling then.

Anyway, they took her body to McBurney's Funeral Home in Motley. They'll be planting her tomorrow.





"Uhm. The horses, the rides, the horses are coming, right? Right?"

"Yes, Arnie."

Endora is where we are, and you need to know that describing this place is like dancing to no music. It's a town. Farmers. Town square. Old movie theater closed down so we have to drive sixteen miles to Motley to see movies. Probably half the town is over sixty-five, so you can imagine the raring place Endora is on weekend nights. There were twenty-three in my graduating class, and only four are left in town. Most went to Ames or Des Moines and the really ambitious made it over to Omaha. One of those left from my class is my buddy, Tucker. The other two are the Byers brothers, Tim and Tommy. They stayed in town because of a near fatal, crippling car accident, and they just kind of ride around the square racing in their electric wheelchairs. They are like the town mascots, and the best part is they are identical twins. Before the accident no one could tell them apart. But Tim's face was burned, and he's been given this piglike skin. They both were paralyzed but only Tommy lost his feet.

The other day in our weekly paper, the Endora Express, pigskin Tim pointed out the bright side in all of this. Now it is easy to tell which is which. After many years Tim and Tommy have finally found their own identities. That's a big thing in Endora these days. Identities. And the bright side. We got people here who've lost their farms to the bank, kids to wars, relatives to disease, and they will look you square in the eye and, with a half grin, they'll tell you the bright side.

The bright side for me is difficult on mornings like these. There's no escaping that I'm twenty-four years old, that I've been out of Iowa a whopping one whole time, that you could say about all I've done in my life to this point is baby-sit my retard brother, buy cigarettes for my mother, and sack groceries for the esteemed citizens of Endora.

"Gilbert?" says Arnie. He has frosting all around his mouth and a glob of jelly above his good eye.

"What, Arnie?"

"You sure they're coming? We've been standing such a long time."

"They'll be along any second." I take a napkin from the basket and spit in it.


"Come here, Arnie."


"Come here."

"Everybody's always wiping me!"

"Why do you think that is?"


For Arnie, that is an answer.

I give up on spring cleaning his face and look down the road. The highway is empty.

Last year the big rides came pretty early. The trailers and the campers came later. Arnie is really only interested in the horses from the merry-go-round.

I say, "Hey, Arnie, there's still sleep in my eyes," but he isn't interested. He nibbles on his bottom lip; he's working on a thought.

My little brother is a somewhat round-looking kid with hair that old ladies always want to comb. He is a head shorter than me, with teeth that look confused. There's no hiding that he's retarded. You meet him and you figure it out right away.

"Gilbert! They're not coming!"

I tell him to stop shouting.

"They're not coming at all, Gilbert. The rides got in a big crash and all the workers hung themselves...."

"They will be here," I say.

"They hung themselves!"

"No, they didn't."

"You don't know! You don't know!"

"Not everybody hangs himself, Arnie."

He doesn't hear this because he reaches into the basket, stuffs the other green apple inside his shirt, and starts running back to town. I shout for him to stop. He doesn't, so I chase after him and grab his waist. I lift him in the air and the apple drops out onto the brown grass.

"Let me go. Let me go."

I carry him back to the picnic basket. He clings to me, his legs squeeze around my stomach, his fingers dig into my neck. "You're getting bigger. Did you know that?" He shakes his head, convinced I'm wrong. He's not any taller than last year, but he's rounder, puffier. If this keeps up, he'll soon be too big for me to pick up. "You're still growing. You're getting harder and harder for me to carry. And you're getting so strong, too."

"Nope. It's you, Gilbert."

"It's not me. Believe me, Arnie Grape is getting bigger and stronger. I'm sure of it."

I set him down when I get to the picnic basket. I'm out of breath; beads of sweat have formed on my face.

Arnie says, "You're just getting little."

"You think?"

"I know. You're getting littler and littler. You're shrinking."

Stupid people often say the smartest things. Even Arnie knows that I'm in a rut.

Since I don't believe in wearing a watch, I can't tell the exact time -- but this moment, the one when my goofy brother rips the bandage off my heart, is followed by a yelp. Arnie's yelp. He points east, and with the binoculars I locate a tiny dot moving our way. Several dots follow.

"Is it them? Is it them?"

"Yes," I say.

Arnie's jaw drops; he starts dancing.

"Here come the horsies. Here come the horsies!"

He begins howling and jumping up and down in circles; slobber sprays from his mouth. Arnie is entering heaven now. I stand there watching him watch as the rides grow. I just stand there hoping he won't sprout wings and fly away.

Copyright © 1991 by Peter Hedges

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide
The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion for Peter Hedges's What's Eating Gilbert Grape?. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
  1. In the first chapter, Arnie Grape tells Gilbert, "You're getting littler and littler. You're shrinking." "Stupid people sometimes say the smartest things," Gilbert reflects. With this exchange, what themes does Peter Hedges begin to develop in his novel? How is Gilbert shrinking?
  2. Consider the nature of Gilbert's relationship with Becky alongside his relationship with Mrs. Carver. What do these characters mean to Gilbert? Do they present him with the same possibilities for escape, love, and healing? Explain.
  3. Remembered chiefly for his relentless "optimism," Albert Grape nevertheless hung himself in his basement. How might this irony persist in Gilbert's own life, particularly in his relationship with his boss, Mr. Lamson? Throughout the novel, what does Gilbert reveal to us about his father? What sort of legacy has Albert left his son?
  4. Unlike Amy and Gilbert, who have stayed behind to take care of Momma and Arnie, Larry and Janice have managed to escape, at least physically and geographically. What significance lies in Hedges' decision to make Janice an airline stewardess, a job that requires perpetual flight? Why has Larry all but cut himself off from his family?
  5. Who is Lance Dodge? What does his success represent to each of the novel's characters?
  6. What kind of person is Gilbert's younger sister Ellen? Discuss Hedges' use of dialogue to develop her character. What is the source of Ellen's hostility toward Gilbert? Why might the fact that Gilbert has done nothing since high school bother Ellen, and even frighten her?
  7. Critics have compared the narrative voice of Gilbert Grape to that of J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield. What similarities and differences exist between the two? Discuss other works of literature or film that echo the themes, characters, or tone of What's Eating Gilbert Grape (e.g.: Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, Don DeLillo's End Zone).
  8. On a final tour of the condemned elementary school, Becky hopes to help Gilbert "say goodbye." What comes of Gilbert's recollection of his second-grade trauma? And why do you suppose Hedges places this scene just after the one in which Gilbert witnesses Mr. Carver's adultery with a bewigged Melanie? How does this pair of scenes affect Gilbert? How does the novel unfold in the aftermath of these episodes?
  9. About Momma, Gilbert says, "She thought she was going to enjoy my hate. But it has broken her." Discuss the nature of Gilbert's relationship with his mother, who can't seem to look at Gilbert without seeing her dead husband's face.
  10. Over many bottles of beer -- and accompanied by the songs of Sinatra and Elvis -- the Grape children gather around Momma's body to perform a makeshift memorial service. What is happening here? Discuss the characters' tacit decision to burn the house down. In addition to their wish to avoid the embarrassment and humiliation of having all of Endora gather to watch Momma's body removed from the house by a crane, what might the destruction of the house represent to the Grapes?
  11. Faced with Momma's steady growth, dwarfed by Endora's barren landscape, and resentful of the invasion of corporate America in the form of the hulking Food Land and the prefab Burger Barn, Gilbert has long felt trapped and dissatisfied with his life. But as "the walls in Momma's room fall down in flames," What's Eating Gilbert Grape ends with an unexpected sense of contentment, offering an almost idyllic image of family togetherness: the Grape children huddled before the house as silent spectators. What might Hedges be suggesting here? Are the children liberated? What do you imagine happens to each character after the novel ends? With the house, the school building, and his mother all gone, can Gilbert finally stop "shrinking"? Will he see Becky again? Will he escape? Has he already escaped? Explain.
  12. Watch the Lasse HallstrÖm film adaptation of Hedges' novel and compare the two. How does the movie echo the book's themes? How does your reading group feel about the movie's ending?

About The Author

Peter Hedges, the author of What's Eating Gilbert Grape, grew up in West Des Moines, Iowa. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 1, 1999)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780671038540

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Raves and Reviews

The Atlantic Sometimes funny, sometimes sad...and always engaging.

Philadelphia Inquirer Touching....By the book's exhilaratingly luminous ending...we have already been mesmerized.

The New York Times Completely original...a novel that reads like...a collaboration between Nathanael West and Garrison Keillor, or David Lynch and Grandma Moses.

Harry Crews What's Eating Gilbert Grape is a story that outruns the covers of the book in which it is contained. Once you read this story, it will be with you forever -- this place amd these people will live in your heart and in the blood it pumps. I am utterly dumbfounded when a first novel of this quality comes along. I send Peter Hedges the ultimate compliment one writer can send another: I'll surely read the next thing you write.

Publishers Weekly Wonderfully entertaining and amusing...goes down like a chocolate milkshake but boasts the sharpness and finesse of a complex wine....Like John Updike, Hedges invests an antihero's ordinary provincial life with theamatic meaning....

The New York Times Hedges' writing possesses a sincerity that directly engages the reader's sympathies. The result is a narrative that is alternately sad, funny and gruesome, a narrative that uses the story of this one unfortunate family to create a portrait of small town life that's frequently as affecting as Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, as disturbing and darkly surreal as Nathanael West's Dream Life of Balso Snell. At once the story of one young man's coming of age, and an elegy for those outsiders and misfits who find themselves sidetracked from the American Dream, What's Eating Gilbert Grape stands as a most auspicious debut.

Philadelphia Inquirer A picture of tragedy painted in humor...Gilbert Grape is one of the breed of male narrators whose sweet, wry, endearing voices invest every failing with humor and every ordinary moment with a measure of worried perplexity bordering on awe....Gilbert's sexuality is subtly and tenderly evoked....[Hedges has fashioned] a world at once vast and finite....

Publishers Weekly Hedges' ostensibly country-bumpkin-style tale sparkles with sophisticated literary devices and psychological insight....The colloquial narrative voice, dialogue, colorful cast of characters...are conveyed with appealing credibility....Hedges leaves readers demanding a sequel.

Cedar Rapids Gazette Terrific...wonderfully entertaining...a literary delight....There's a bit of John Updike's Rabbit trilogy in this charming narrative, just as there are traces of Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar. But mostly there's Peter Hedges, who grabs the reader early on with this tale....The pace of the narrative sweeps the reader along to a most compelling and poignant conclusion....Nuggets pop off the page with regularity and make this story come alive....What's Eating Gilbert Grape has the feel of simplicity, but you know you're reading something complex and artistically crafted. The book has the air of whimsy, but will grab you with fierce credibility. Hedges is a young author to be reckoned with.

Washington Post Book World Hedges writes with energy and wit...charged with sardonic intelligence.

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