The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 09-JAN 10

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DEC 09-JAN 10 Issue

FICTION: Tragedy with a Gentle Hand

O.H. Bennet
The Lie
(Algonquin, 2009)

It’s no lie, Oscar H. Bennett can write.  “His brother lay on the front porch, on the old warped boards, eyes fixed on the bare bulb that hung above him.  He was exposed lying there as if he were naked, because that is how it must feel when people can stare at you and you can’t stare back.” Bennett’s authentic tone drives us through the cold tragedy of death with a gentle hand in The Lie.   

Lawrence Matheus is dead.  Terry is lying.  Bennett’s powerful opening takes us to the front step of the Matheus porch moments after teenage Lawrence is gunned down.  Lawrence’s younger brother Terry explains to the police that a group of white men caused the red stained boards.  It is at this moment, Bennett hooks us with an insatiable curiosity.  We have the puzzle of Terry’s lie along with his motivation for mendacity and a void of truth.  We know what didn’t happen: Terry’s story.  And now we’re eager to learn what did. 

As the story progresses the police reach the same conclusion we have known for pages.  We are however, teased with the details which are doled.  It’s only when we have a flush picture of each characters involvement in the tragedy that we are allowed another scrap of truth. Each character is plagued with a unique guilt about the death.  And the guilt creates burdens, stalling the possibility of acceptance.

Bennett’s carries long metaphors with skill.  The most powerful being the blood soaked porch planks that are ripped up by the father, only to be replaced with raw wood not suited to walk on. “… clean, straight boards, which he measured carefully, cut exactly, and fit into place.  He had attempted to hammer the orderliness back into his house.”

Meanwhile Cap, the Uncle, seeks revenge, the mother is heartbroken, and the brother is simply broken. Everyone feels rotten and betrayed.  The girlfriend, Tamara, feels responsible too. “The stupidest thing she had ever heard a person say was that guns did not kill people, people killed people.  That was like saying jetliners don’t fly people to Europe, people fly people to Europe.”  And while she may not have been the pilot in Lawrence’s death, she feels as if she pulled the trigger.

Another interesting character in the book is Bread Williams.  He was the other boyfriend of Lawrence’s girlfriend Tamara.  Bread is the bigger, badder, belligerent boyfriend who makes Terrell feel he needs to protect himself, “The last big thing Lawrence had done was buy a gun to shoot a rival but only if Bread messed with Lawrence first.  Lawrence never looked for trouble; he just didn’t step away from it.” For Bread, one gun probably wouldn’t have been enough. Bread was so mean even his breath was uneven. (Bennett’s descriptions are better.)

While the book is about death, it is not a downer.  The relatable characters heal and strengthen through the pages.  Bennett brings us tangible evidence in Terry fixing his uncle’s old motorcycle, his father fixing up Lawrence’s old Dodge Dart, and Tamara finding a job enabling her to save money and potentially leave.  

We’re rooting for Terry.  And we know he has a lot to look forward to.  The book takes place in the mid seventies when “Ronald Regan had beat President Ford in the Texas primary and Governor Carter beat Senator Bentsen in the senator’s own state.”  This means that if Terry can reconcile his past, he can look forward to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, The Red Sox winning the World Series, and Barack Obama in the White House. 

Toward the fourth quarter of the book Bennett stretches out what could have been an earlier ending.  When the reveal comes, we are prepared; eager and ready.  The end? A tasteful close that could not have been better.  The Lie is Oscar H. Bennett’s second novel. His first book which debuted in early 2000 is titled, The Colored Garden (Laughing Owl Publishing).


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 09-JAN 10

All Issues