Sunday, September 13, 2009

Review Monday: The Lie by O.H. Bennett

The Lie by O.H. Bennett
Reviewed by Rion Amilcar Scott

It’s a story as old as Genesis: With jealousy in his heart, a man kills his brother and, as punishment, faces banishment and is forever marked as a killer.

In the masterful hands of O.H. Bennett—the Virginia author who wrote 2000’s “The Colored Garden”—Cain and Abel’s tale, transposed to 1970s Indiana, the jealousy is not the motivation behind the crime; it’s just another unpleasant and confusing feeling to sort through in the wake of tragedy. With such a fine and nuanced eye on human psychology, Bennett pulls off an affecting—if uneven—story of lies, secrets, race, and ultimately hard fought, yet modest, reconciliation.

The Lie (307 pages, Algonquin Books, $13.95), Bennett’s second novel, begins with teenager Terrell Matheus watching the dead body of his older brother, Lawrence Matheus, as it lies on his front porch. Lawrence has been felled by a single bullet after the two brothers horsed around with a gun, causing it to go off. The neighborhood becomes a tempest with neighbors watching and police questioning. Terrell, the crime’s accidental perpetrator, is also its only witness. It is at this moment of tension and confusion that Terrell— a black teenager—tells the police that a group of white men murdered his brother.

Anyone who has ever told an untruth only to watch it slowly unravel (that would be all of us), can put him or herself in Terrell’s anguished shoes. The reader watches with discomfort as Terrell’s lie rearranges the lives of everyone in this Indiana town. Students stage walkouts at school to protest what they believe to be a hate crime. Terrell’s father becomes consumed in anger, telling his son that he has learned to hate. Local preachers and activists use Lawrence as a symbol. Terrell’s uncle, in an act of vigilante justice, attacks some white men who vaguely fit his nephew’s invented description.

Eventually, Terrell’s lie is uncovered and he faces a fate worse than prison: the same fate that God cursed Cain with after he slew his brother. He’s turned back into the community, marked as a killer and forced to face everyone’s judgment.

Bennett writes with a straightforward and understated lyricism that does a remarkable job of maintaining the tension throughout the first half of the novel. It’s a narrative strategy reminiscent of Richard Wright’s Native Son, a book that shares DNA with Bennett’s work, but also its flaws.

Bennett relies so heavily on tension to keep the narrative in motion that after the other shoe drops and Terrell’s lie is discovered, the novel loses a bit of its immediacy. Parts of the second half of the book seem aimless and this makes an otherwise wonderful narrative feel bloated. For instance, there is a scene in which the author himself directly invokes the story of Cain and Abel. A preacher tells the Biblical tale from behind the pulpit as Terrell watches. The preacher, though not directly addressing Terrell, imagines God’s thoughts on punishing Cain: “‘But, but, but I still have plans for him. Uh-huh. He still can redeem himself. He can still help others. He can repent He can grow as a human being. He is still one of Mine. Do you hear?’”

Much like the long speech of Bigger Thomas’ attorney that mars the end of Native Son, the preacher’s (mercifully) short speech near the end of The Lie seems to be a way for the author to sneak his commentary into the novel. The beautiful restraint in which Bennett tells the story slips a bit without tension to center it.

Even with this, Bennett’s book is an eloquent masterstroke in America’s long conversation about race. Just as Terrell’s dilemma echoes back to the first murder, Bennett’s haunting prose will echo through readers' minds long after the final sentence.

O.H. Bennett will be reading at the Fall for the Book Festival Mason MFA Alumni Reading
When: Wed, September 23, 1:30pm – 2:30pm
Where: M&T Bank Tent, Outside the Johnson Center, George Mason University, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, VA 22030

Rion Amilcar Scott's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at Bartelby-Snopes, Unlikely 2.0, Boston Literary Magazine, and other publications. He lives in Hyattsville, MD.

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