Book Review: New in Print
O.H. Bennett's sophomore novel tells the story of an accidental Cain and the repercussions of his crime and cover story
Reviewed by Sarah Jean Billeiter, Fri., Aug. 28, 2009
The Lie: A Novelby O.H. Bennett
Algonquin Books, 307 pp., $13.95 (paper)
O.H. Bennett's sophomore novel tells the story of an accidental Cain and the repercussions of his crime and cover story. After killing his brother Lawrence, Terrell Matheus tells an easy lie that affects not just his family and the people who knew Lawrence, but his entire community.
Bennett dips into the social and personal consequences of an African-American teen lying about a hate crime. In addition to grappling with his own guilt and the loss of his brother, Terrell is faced with a community eager to exact justice on perpetrators who don't exist: Lawrence's funeral is hijacked by politicking reverends, schoolmates who'd never before looked at him incite walkouts in his name, and his uncle organizes an attack on innocent men who seem to fit the false perpetrators' profiles. When the truth finally comes out, Terrell struggles with his father's rage, his uncle's guilt over the unwarranted attack, and one character's suggestion that he has set civil rights back by crying wolf.
The novel manages real power at times, such as in Bennett's description of a mother's grief over her son's death ("Judith Matheus could not seem to find her feet. She could not string enough separate movements together to qualify as being in motion.") or when a reverend changes his sermon after seeing Terrell, explaining that the mark of Cain was not a curse but God's way of saying: "I know he done wrong, but we've already talked it out. Don't slay him. Leave him be. Let him live." However, the novel suffers by attempting to cover too much, never delving deep enough into any single current. In addition to the myriad reactions to the murder story, real and imagined, the novel chronicles Terrell's quest to better understand the young man his brother was and Terrell's awkward relationship with the unfortunately two-dimensional woman-child Lawrence loved. Bennett also sacrifices elegance to his insistence that the reader know this narrative is set in the Seventies, stumbling over unnecessary descriptions of Afros, bell-bottoms, and platform shoes.
Problems aside, Bennett engagingly examines the idea that our actions are often bigger than our selves while also executing a touching portrait of people who are on the verge of reaching out to one another but are typically too frightened or angry to follow through.