A writer looks for the truth about a crime and might find out more than he wants to.
While attending rehearsals for an Easter pageant in a Louisiana prison, an unnamed novelist meets Kendrick King, a black man serving a life sentence. Like the pageant’s main character, King maintains his innocence. He was only found guilty, he says, because “the truth was too confusing.” Curiosity piqued, the writer/narrator of Lazar’s fifth book (I Pity the Poor Immigrant, 2014, etc.) begins his own investigation. As in much of Lazar’s earlier work, the plot resembles a labyrinth of coincidences and competing perspectives. It obeys the unbending rule of postmodern fiction: the more closely you look at a narrative, the more elusive the truth must become. On a more original note, the narrator admits that his skepticism about Kendrick’s story might also be a way of avoiding simple but hard truths about America’s criminal justice system, which ruins countless lives for dubious reasons. This is a timely epiphany, but it could arrive with more emotional force than it does here. Although the imagery in the novel is unfailingly vivid (Kendrick has “Weimaraner eyes,” a detective has “a half-moon scar like the sear mark left by the edge of a heated bottlecap”), the characters are too vague to elicit deep sympathy. Perhaps Kendrick needs to remain a mystery. But the narrator, too, is oddly insubstantial. In a rare exception, he lies in a sensory deprivation tank and feels “the heart’s steady thud” and knows in a flash that “the body is its servant…all of it is for the heart, not for the brain.” It’s a vital thing for this novelist to know in theory, but he hasn’t yet put it into practice.
This heady novel could use more heart.