Monday, June 22, 2015


Although you might not know at first blush, Henry Hayden is a bit of an ass. To the outside world he's a dashing, bestselling author who has millions but lives fairly modestly other than his beloved Maserati. In reality, Henry is a masterful sociopath, his life and image all a carefully constructed facade.

As Sascha Arango's The Truth and Other Lies opens, Henry finds himself in a bit of a bind. His mistress, Betty, is pregnant with his child. Not only does Henry not really want children, there's that niggling problem of his wife, Martha. Complicating matters, and oh, do they get complicated, is the fact that Betty is the editor-in-chief of Henry's publisher, Moreany Publishing House (which his books helped save from bankruptcy). And she wants to keep the baby.

Stuck in an untenable situation, Henry has to take action. But his plan goes quite awry and sets off a chain of events that threatens to flatten his house of cards. Blowing more wind at Henry's tenuous paper abode is Gisbert Fasch, who smells something rotten in Denmark and is bound and determined to figure out what.

You see, Henry has been an ass for a long time, including the time he spent at the Saint Renata orphanage as a youngster. Henry turned the place into the "Saint Renata Gulag," and it was a "red-letter day" for all when he disappeared. None perhaps happier than Gilbert Fasch, who also lived at Saint Renata and was tormented by Henry.

Fasch remembered meeting Henry over thirty years ago in the catholic orphanage of Saint Renata. Henry  had been about eleven years old at the time and not a nice boy. It's quite possible that the career of every psychopath begins with a tragic event, but often that event is birth itself. Evil is born innocently. It grows up, seeks shape and form, and begins its work playfully. At that time Henry already had a pretty long history of children's homes behind him; he'd been kicked out of all of them or he'd ran away. But he never breathed a word on the subject. It was as if each day that passed were left behind him like a frozen stone.

Gilbert's dream of being a writer were crushed when self-publishing bankrupted him. He's teaching German as a second language when he learns of Henry's writing success in a literary supplement and figures it must be a mistake. How could Henry have written bestsellers? And why does Henry have no known history, literary or personal, between Saint Renata and his blockbuster first novel?

As Gilbert and the police keep pressing and Henry begins to lose control over various elements of his life, the only mystery is whether the pack of lies will come unraveled faster than even an old pro like Henry can knit.

I had to mull my thoughts about Truth for a bit when I was finished. On the plus side, it felt a bit like a 50s black and white noir film, and elicited images of Patricia Highsmith's Tom (Talented Mr.) Ripley. I loved those visions and that edgy feeling I had while reading. Henry isn't "likable," but I prefer my characters flawed (and often even sociopathic). I'm a sucker for a psychopath story, particularly when the psychopath has some back story and isn't just conveniently labeled as such.

I found many of the characters interesting, including the supporting cast of Gilbert Fasch, Claus Moreany, head of the publishing house, Honor Eisendraht, his long-time, secretly-in-love-with-Claus assistant, and Obradin, Henry's fishmonger friend. Truth can also be quite funny, sometimes almost farcical: Henry hunting a vicious, attic-dwelling, demon marten with a spear gun, and a crime committed with a sex doll.

Despite a bit of awkwardness which might have something to do with the book being a translation, I found many passages dart-worthy. To wit:

What tormented Henry far more than uncertainty was the thought of certainty. Knowing what lay in store for him was tantamount to the pendulum over the pit. What was there left to hope for except remorse, death, and decay? In keeping with this entirely clear-eyed outlook, Henry defined his life as a cumulative process, to be judged by historians only after his death. And happy is he who leaves nothing behind; he need fear no judgment.

Afternoon, four o'clock. The best time of the day, when it's too late to catch up on whatever you've failed to do, when the light is softer and the ice cubes glint in your glass. You treat yourself to a long drink instead of an afternoon nap, forget your vices, write imaginary letters and escort yourself out of this squandered, pointlessly spent day. 

Then there's the other hand. I enjoyed the change in feel between the absurd and the vile, but I can see how others might take issue with the wide swings in tone that aren't always seamless. Because I also liked Henry's musings on evil and good (i.e., people aren't generally good; sporadic acts of goodness are just "mere interruptions to human wickedness."), the change in pace didn't distract me, but some may find it uneven.

I didn't find the book to be mysterious at all, so if it's a whodunit? you want this likely isn't your bag. I would like to have had a better sense of Henry and Martha's marriage and Martha herself. There are some plot devices we've seen before, but because I was sucked into the story, it didn't matter. My overall feel for the book was positive, even up to the end, which could be the source of much discussion and frustration.

Overall The Truth and Other Lies was a positive reading experience. Henry's life is obviously built on lies, and it's apparent he's the bad actor, but his belief in the need for at least some truth ("indispensable, like the olive in the martini") makes for some interesting (and violent) shenanigans. It was a worthwhile trip to see which side, good or evil, would prevail in the end.

STREET SENSE:  I recommend The Truth and Other Lies to readers who like a psychopath/sociopath story, don't need every plot point tied up in a bow, and don't mind some elements that may seem a bit of a strange fit. If you can go with it, you might like it despite a bit of frustration.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: There is no silence like another person's absence. Drained of anything familiar, it is a silence that is hostile and reproachful. The shadowy figures of memory surface noiselessly and begin their picture show. Hallucinations mingle with reality; voices call us, and the past returns.

COVER NERD SAYS: I think this cover is fantastic, it made me curious about the book at first glance. The image takes on more meaning as you read the book, but even without that I loved the obvious symbolism of breaking through the surface and seeing what lies beneath. This cover is high on my list of the best put out in 2015.


Katie McD @ Bookish Tendencies said...

I'm glad you had an overall enjoyable experience with this book. It didn't quite do it for me, unfortunately. It felt very stale, and kind of been there, read that. Plus the ending, I thought was weak, and almost like the author didn't know how to end it, so he just stopped writing or something...

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I think I'm one of the few who liked it, actually. At first the end peeved me, but I ended up with some appreciation for it. It's either lazy or took some gumption.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

The end was rushed and abrupt. We'll talk substance off-line, because I can't even guess where you'd come out on it, though I think maybe similarly to me. I didn't expect the camp, either, and it was a bizarre combo. For some reason, it didn't put me off. I don't think enjoying Henry says anything other than you like reading about different personalities. Henry was never boring.

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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