- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 24, 2005


By William Hoffman

River City, $23.95, 256 pages


How do individuals cope with a shameful or embarrassing past? Some choose to remain silent, while others confess their flaws and seek absolution. And others simply lie. But a major problem with habitual lying is this: Untruths must be remembered, practiced and kept consistent, and the person weaving the web of deceit needs to live in peace with his or her conscience. Otherwise the tissue of deceit dissolves and the liar is exposed.

William Hoffman’s 14th novel, “Lies,” explores this world of dishonesty. In it, entrepreneur Wayland Garnett has grown prosperous in the automobile-parts supply business in Florida. He is a decorated World War II veteran who returned to the States after the war and achieved the American Dream, though with a decidedly Southern slant. He possesses a storied legacy as the grandson of a notable Confederate army officer, a large home and the respect of his peers. His life is graced by a charming wife, Amy, and a teenage daughter, Jennifer, who attends high-toned Agnes Scott College. Now in his 60s and enjoying the good life, Wayland is the embodiment of a Horatio Alger hero, an up-by-the-bootstraps success story.

Nobody knows that Wayland is the keeper of a dark secret, and the unspooling of that secret forms much of the narrative in “Lies.” The reader learns that while he achieved success through honest hard work, Wayland began life not as the scion of a distinguished family, but as one of several children born to a penniless sharecropper and his defeated wife in Virginia’s tobacco-growing Southside region. He was an unskilled laborer who spent the 1930s toiling in the sunbaked fields alongside his brothers and his bitter, ne’er-do-well father, working for the pittance paid by the Ballard family, the high-living lairds of the county.

His youth was in fact one act of humiliation after another: being shaken down for lunch money by the school bully, having his schoolteacher exclaim to her class that Wayland’s head is infested with lice, wearing secondhand clothing retrieved from the Ballards’ trash pile, and simply knowing that he and his family will never rise from the dominating shadow of the Ballards. In those long-ago days, the Garnett household often had little more than resentfulness to eat, doing the best they could to survive each new day while hoping for better times, which never came.

Incidents of joy in Wayland’s early life are few, although those few times are heartwarming in their timelessness. Still, this story of a Depression-era Virginia family is a long way from Walton’s Mountain. He has grown up ashamed of his impoverished upbringing and the truths of his early life would come as a shock to Wayland’s wife and daughter, whose perceptions of him are that he has always lived in comfort and style. (The only bit of truth Wayland told his loved ones is that his upbringing was a “simple rural life” which involved cultivating tobacco — which to the moneyed modern ears of Amy and Jennifer sounds faintly gauche.

Even the portrait of the long-dead Confederate officer that graces their home’s mantel is bogus, something picked up for a few dollars in a junk shop.

Flash forward many years. On a business trip to Southside Virginia, driving along country roads into his boyhood stomping-ground of Howell County, Wayland Garnett confronts the web of lies he carefully wove long ago and has maintained for several decades. By the end of the novel, having revisited the scenes of his youth, Wayland has wrestled with the question of whether to come clean with Amy and Jennifer or to simply let the past lie buried for all time. His decision is influenced by a quick visit to the old Ballard place, which is now a ghostly shell, its long-dead inhabitants having had their share of life’s pain.

As he leaves Howell County, heading south toward home, he is refreshed and ready to pronounce a benediction upon his past and face the rest of his life. By that point Wayland has experienced the “torn-ness” that is part of many who lived through the Depression’s hardships: a rejection of any sentiment about the simple joys of “the good old days,” together with a sadness and reluctance to let go of his memories, for he remembers there were good times among the bad. This is the sadness of the knowledge of life’s fleetingness, its sweetness despite its pain and the vanity of human wishes.

Much of Wayland’s story is told in vivid flashback, revisiting the key milestones in his long life. In the masterful hands of William Hoffman — an award-winning novelist and short story writer who has written often and movingly of the Southside Virginia milieu — the story of Wayland’s life handled in a realistic and memorable style. Along with his numerous short stories as well as such novels as “A Death of Dreams” (1973) and “Godfires” (1986), “Lies” represents another accomplished chapter in Mr. Hoffman’s long-running saga of life in Virginia’s Southside: a mixture of meanness and greatness, of life in all its varying shades of joy and sorrow, all told by the hand of a curiously uncelebrated master of his craft.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of the recently published biography “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House).

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