LIES

By William Hoffman

River City. 254 pp. $23.95

Is William Hoffman's latest novel, Lies, mired too thickly in the muck of old-fashioned local color, swamped by Southern stereotypes? Here swirls a "sea of tasseling corn and languorous tobacco," and there stand "corn, wheat, oats, alfalfa, and most important of all tobacco nigh on to leap from this fecund earth" (as if Faulkner hadn't overused "fecund" enough for us all). From down by the river come the "bewonks of frogs," and closer in lurks a density of "skeeters, greenies, and deer flies whose bites become so regular a part of night and day that the family slaps at them not with anger but resignation." Add in curing hams and frying fish, the working of a sawmill and the atmosphere in a country store on election day, and . . . well, what else is missing? A shotgun wedding, a home birthing, a still out in the woods? And at the other social extreme: landed gentry on horseback, an estate with a magnolia-lined drive, maybe some English foxhounds? Not to worry: Hoffman's novel offers each -- and a baling accident, to boot.

But if a reliance on such shopworn elements runs risks for serious fiction, Hoffman uses these ingredients to craft an often compelling study of class in the 20th-century South -- and of one man's present-day struggle to confront the shame and insecurity of an impoverished upbringing.

For Wayland Garnett, a wealthy Florida-based manufacturer, attending a convention in Richmond triggers memories of his youth in (fictional) Howell County, Va. After one evasive call to his wife, Amy, he's driving a rented Sedan de Ville toward a past he'd dismantled 47 years earlier, having erected in its stead the intricate series of lies at the base of all his current success.

Except for that rolling Cadillac and the vague sense that something must be waiting at journey's end, the present-day story offers little forward momentum or even clear motivation: "A damn fool errand he was on anyhow," Wayland thinks, "not even an errand but nothing more than a fruitless journey into an uneasy swamp of nostalgia." A meditative mode prevails, and the novel, like Wayland, keeps being pulled into the past -- inexorably so (to use another favorite Faulkner word), with each chapter fading almost immediately through twin sets of ellipses into episodic memories. Driving by an old horse, Wayland considers:

"Maybe it remembered or dreamed of another time when its blood still ran hot and encroaching tractors were not on their way to conquering all. . . .

. . . . the land he and Willie Meekems leave Saturday afternoon after Mr. Wesley Rudd blows his whistle to signal they are finished work 'til Monday morning."

Intriguingly, Hoffman writes contemporary scenes in the past tense and flashbacks in the present. Some stylistic commentary that the past is always with us? Wayland's history certainly haunts him -- the burden of having lived dirt-poor in the shadow of the well-heeled Ballard family -- and this collision of past and present, expectations and limitations, lends the story weight. As a child, Wayland imagines that generations earlier, his poaching, moonshining father might have been a "frontiersman, a hunter and slayer of Indians and panthers instead of a trifling cropper who never fully paid his bills at the Ballards' store," and he witnesses his mother's own poignant attempts to escape her hardscrabble life. Also, throughout his adolescence, Wayland indulges romantic fantasies about the Ballards' daughter, Diana, a relationship that brings his yearnings to a head and pushes this earlier story to its tensest, if most predictable, moments.

Eventually, Wayland builds a successful life -- and a successful past too, complete with props purchased at out-of-town antique stores, instant heirlooms and heroic ancestors. But he never strays far from feeling poor and lice-ridden. He's a self-made man in more ways than one, but he's discomfited by his own design, and Hoffman offers a frequently nuanced exploration of the profits and wages of this decades-long deception. Nibbling brie at his daughter Jennifer's college graduation, Wayland thinks that "never in Amy's or Jennifer's lives had they witnessed squealing hogs cut and butchered, felt hot spurting blood, or slung slimy intestines into the dented galvanized tub dragged from the shed behind the cabin." Such contrasting images illuminate Wayland's emotional alienation and set the stage for some inevitable catharsis ahead.

Ultimately, however, the novel takes misguided turns. Just as that Cadillac reaches the heart of Howell County, the Wayland of memory embarks for Europe and World War II, and by the time today's Wayland arrives at the Ballard estate, the long-ago Wayland has begun his business down in Florida. The two stories, seemingly primed for a climactic and revelatory meeting, simply slide by one another.

Still, Lies remains largely engaging, even insightful. Hoffman knows this neck of the woods, and he balances affection, ambivalence and animosity as he guides Wayland and the reader through this region, this history. In the end, there's redemption of a sort -- a backward glance, another flourish of flowers, a steadier move ahead -- and Hoffman's warmth and generosity as an old-school storyteller prove redemptive as well, saving this tale itself from its reliance on those shotgun weddings and hidden stills, that languorous tobacco, this fecund earth. *

Art Taylor's reviews and literary essays have appeared in Mississippi Quarterly, the Oxford American and North Carolina's Metro Magazine, among other publications.