Where the Truth Lies by Rupert Holmes
Rating: ••• (Recommended)
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Rupert Holmes’ new novel, Where the Truth Lies, presents a captivating story of friendship, betrayal, and the secrets that can last decades. Readers learn slowly about events from multiple perspectives, and eventually come to see what really happened in a watershed event for two long-term partners and friends. In less talented hands than Holmes, this novel would be shallow. Instead, Holmes unveils the many ways in which we share and withhold from those we love. Along the way, the story is a page-turner.
Here’s an excerpt of a scene from Chapter 15 that captures Holmes mastery of character, plot and dialogue (pp. 143-50):
… He hung up the phone and appraised me. “Hope you like baseball. The Mets need somebody famous to sing the National Anthem this afternoon. Vikki Carr was going to do it, but she didn't make her connection in Denver."
"So you're singing it?"
"Yeah, it's no big deal. I do this for them, they come up with eighty seats the next time they play an expansion team. You like Chinese?"
"There's a Chinese expansion team?"
"Food. Or did you have lunch already?"
I said I hadn't. He turned to Reuben. "Look, we'll never get down to Chinatown on four wheels fast enough—we'll take the subway. Call Dav-EI limos, we'll meet that Mike Whatever-His-Name-ls down there." Lanny turned quickly to me and asked, "You were okay with him, right?" as if such issues were subject to my approval.
As he was saying all this, he did something that was new to my range of experience. He put on a disguise, as if this were no different from putting on a blazer and a tie. He reached into a hatbox near the couch and adjusted a blond wig that gave him a coif not unlike that of the late Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones. To this he added a pair of granny glasses with smoked lenses. He took off his shirt in front of me (he had a much nicer physique and quite a bit less chest hair than I had imagined) and donned a silk one that bore a hand-painted western landscape, over which he wore a light-navy sports jacket with gold piping. A beaded choker around his neck completed what was, in that era, quite a smart outfit and which, in any other era, would have caused him to be laughed out of town.
We took the service elevator down to the Plaza's kitchens, then up a flight of stairs that Lanny knew about and out a service entrance onto Fifty-eighth Street. Soon I was doing the best I could to keep up with Lanny, who kept his head bowed but chivalrously took my arm as we plunged down the steps of the Lexington Avenue line. Amazingly, Lanny had a platinum subway-token dispenser in his pocket (probably worth three or four hundred times the price of the five tokens it contained). He put a token into a turnstile and, ever the gentleman, gestured for me to pass through first. As I did, a Number 4 train rasped into and against the platform; its doors opened with the snorting sound of a Brahman bull.
There were no two seats alongside each other free, so we stood holding on to a pole by the doors, my hand and Lanny's hand and the hand of a man who didn't know us stacked as if we were all swearing to some solemn pact. Lanny obviously didn't want to speak for fear of betraying his identity, so I occupied myself by reading the banner ads along the top of the car. Channel II was now showing reruns of Perry Mason every weeknight at eleven. Women were being warned in Spanish not to do some particular thing if they were pregnant. It was apparently assumed that women who spoke English already knew not to do this. Anbesol was recommended to relieve the pain of those jagged red lightning bolts that so often float in the air outside your jaw whenever you look pained. Alongside that, it was fervently suggested that we not move between the cars while the train was in motion and that we not spit on the train or platform. I had, of course, just been about to spit in front of the mop-topped Lanny Morris, but somehow managed to squelch the impulse.
By now the Canal Street station had rolled into place outside our sub- way car. We got off the train and headed up the stairs.
These were the days before Chinatown became overrun with Asians. To be sure, there were lots of quaint Chinese men and women neatly tucked away behind glass-topped counters by the cash registers of Chinese restaurants, fronted by a bowl of after-dinner mints and a juice glass full of loose toothpicks, or in little Chinese shops selling funny things like Chinese daily newspapers or Chinese girlie magazines with pretty, flatbottomed girls in pastel-colored bikinis on the cover.
But it was still largely a place for Occidentals to eat dirt-cheap Chinese food served by hurried, irritated waiters. Oh, on the streets you'd see the occasional old Chinese man in a gray suit and brown hat going to get a haircut, but mainly the neighborhood, like the country of Jamaica, existed primarily for the amusement of white people. "Oh look, a Chinese hamburger stand!" you'd hear. The pagoda roof on an outdoor payphone was adorable.
Lanny said his first sentence to me since we had boarded the subway. "You ever had Sesh-wan cuisine?"
I thought he had sneezed. "What?" I asked.
"Sesh-wan. Most amazing food you'll ever have." I had no idea what he was talking about, but he was clearly pleased that he did. "It's a place in China."
"Oh. As in the Brecht play. The Good Woman of Sze-chu-an." I said the word in three syllables, the way I'd been taught by the same English professor who'd personally introduced me to the word frenulum.
Lanny frowned. "I thought Brecht was German or something."
"A good German," I advised. We turned a corner into Doyers Street, which curved beyond our sight line.
"My favorite street in Manhattan," he commented. ""You know why? It looks like a movie set." It did, but I remarked that, other than the Chiriese neon signs and the shop windows featuring gnarled medicinal roots and gnarled roasted pork carcasses, I couldn't tell just why.
He explained for my edification: "Every backlot wide shot in every Hollywood movie that's set in New York shows either a T-shaped intersection or a curved street. That's because if you showed a real intersection, you'd have to show block after city block going back to infinity. So when I grew up, to me the real Manhattan—meaning the one in the movies—was full of T-shaped streets where gangsters' cars come screeching around the corner. . . or curved streets where some guy standing by a lamppost casts a long, arcing shadow across the wet pavement."
He trotted up three steps into an unpromising canteen named Szechuan Garden. Its decor was a cross between that of my high school cafeteria and a travel agency for slow boats to Mandalay.
Lanny pulled off his wig and greeted the obvious owner, who had been standing by a counter in a wash-and-wear short-sleeved shirt and slacks, picking his teeth. "Oh, Missah Morris!" the restaurateur cried with an accent and jargon and elated demeanor I fully suspected he employed because Caucasians expected it. "Me so happy see you. Got picture you up on wall, see? That make it 'Great Wall'!" It was surely not the first time he had said this. He indicated an eight-by-ten glossy of Lanny over the register, autographed, "Thanks, Lee, for a HOT time in Chinatown!" Lanny nodded, introduced me, and murmured a food order to Lee, who showed us to a large table toward the back of the room and scurried off to the kitchen.
Lanny explained that he needed to save his voice a little for "The Star-Spangled Banner" (which he described as the worst waltz ever written) and apologized in advance for making me do most of the talking. Of course, I was eager to talk about anything under the sun as long as it wasn't about myself since I was already completely compromised on that topic. This led us into a strangely abstract and esoteric monologue on my part, punctuated now and then by Lanny's "Oh really?" New lovers talk only about themselves. (This is one of the great appeals of a new love.) But no one listening to our conversation would have mistaken us for lovers, nor should they have.
I'd heard that the reason for the cooking style of Chinese food, the ingredients diced small in advance to cook in a flash over high heat spread across the width of a wok, was due to the lack of firewood in China. "You had to make the most of the heat while you had it. The verity of this (as well as Lanny's priority as a customer) was demonstrated by the fact that within minutes, our dishes were being brought to our table, presented not in the usual silver tureens with silver tops but simply on open oval plates. And the dishes contained something I had never before seen in a Chinese entre: the color red. Not the usual pale gray-green-white-brown palette of every Cantonese-American restaurant's dishes (the principle ingredients of which were always comstarch and bamboo shoots with a little julienned meat sprinkled on top) but livid, troubling colors. Red bell peppers, strange sienna husks I could not identify, blood-orange peel alongside the shrapnel of corrugated cabbage—and peanuts, for God's sake!
In the midst of all this, I found myself saying three words hitherto unspoken by me in a Chinese restaurant: "I smell lamb."
Lanny nodded. "That's lamb in tea sauce, this is twice-cooked pork with shredded pickled cabbage, and this, my friend, is kung-pao chicken." He looked at me blissfully. "I really envy you. You're about to meet a whole bunch of flavors you've never tasted before."
The next half hour was a truly hallucinogenic experience. Flavors cascaded and tumbled around my mouth like a troupe of Chinese acrobats and fire jugglers performing a noisy circus there. Salt and tang and sharp and deep—1 found myself forking white rice into my mouth directly from the individual bowl provided, using it like a sorbet between courses in a swank restaurant, restoring my tongue to a semblance of neutrality between bites, rather than making the rice into a bland flatbed for one's entries, as was the American custom.
"Well?" asked Lanny with a grin. We'd not talked much once the food was served, other than my fevered oohs and aahs. I felt as if he'd brought me to an orgy dedicated solely to my pleasure. He intently studied the rapturous expressions on my face. It was sexual, a bit perverse, and thoroughly enjoyable.
These men, I thought. And by "these men," I meant Lanny and Vince.
I wondered what it would be like to spend time with either in a normal place. Or would a normal place instantly be made abnormal simply by their presence?
Lee approached the table -with a long plate upon which lay a nearly two-pound lobster, its most abundant locations of meat skillfully plumed up and blooming from within its cracked and unfolded shell, drowned in a livid red sauce that made the carapace of the lobster modestly rosy by comparison. The sauce was flecked throughout with tons of diced scallion.
Lee announced, "I make my special lobster in chile sauce with tangerine peel for you and your lovely lady friend, Missah Morris."
To my surprise, I heard Lanny snap: "You shouldn't have done that, Lee. I don't eat lobster. I'm a Jew."
Lee looked bewildered. "But . . . you eat pork." He gestured to the shredded-cabbage dish Lanny had already ladled onto his own plate.
"I'm a New York Jew, we get dispensation from Milton Berle. I'm allowed spareribs and meatball-parm wedges, but I don't eat shrimp or lobster. They're roaches on plutonium, Lee, they're disgusting. I'll pay for the dish, but take it away."
Lee shrugged. "If you don't want it, I'm not going to put it on the bill," he said in absolutely unbroken English. He carried away the dish, slighted.
Lanny looked back at me with a wisp of contrition in his face. "Sorry. Forgot to ask—maybe you love lobster."
"Well, not after the analogy to roaches I don't," I said with what I hoped was a wry smile.
"Sorry," he said again.
Today I'd been waiting for the slightest sign of vulnerability in Lanny, and this was perhaps as close as I might get. "I feel sorry for you, actually. If you complain to the manager of a restaurant, you're not some bastard at table five. You're Lanny Morris. You have no cloak of anonymity, lf you buy rubbers at a drugstore, the man behind the counter will spend the rest of his life talking about how he once sold Lanny Morris rubbers. I've read lots of books about the lives of famous people, but what would be truly interesting would be a book on what it's like to forever relinquish all anonymity. The way you've done." I placed some food in my mouth and intentionally spoke with my mouth full to make myself sound even more casual. "You ever think about writing a book?"
Lanny drank some tea. "When I'm dead."
I ventured that this sounded moderately challenging, and he explained, "No, I mean, if I ever wrote the book I'd like to write, it would have to be published after I died. When I wouldn't care what anybody thought about me. Man, that would be something. To write a book where I just. . . told the truth. Not put a nice face on everything." He signaled to Lee for a fresh pot of tea. "Can you imagine? Like, I've met four presidents and the truth is, each one seemed to me totally out of it. As if they hardly knew what was going on. Like meeting the principal of a high school where the kids are smoking hash and getting knocked up, and he's in a blue suit talking about young minds. Even JFK left me unimpressed. Felt like I was with the boss's son."
"But you don't think you could say that."
"Not if I was planning to live in this country. I don't think Edith Piaf was such a great singer. I'd get killed for saying that. Or that Marilyn Monroe didn't act any better after she got with Lee Strasberg than before. Oh God, just saying what I really felt. That would be something. Having to be a nice guy is the toughest job in the world when you're not."
"You don't think you're a nice guy?"
"You think you're a nice girl?" he parried with the inflection of a Jewish mother. I bit down upon what I thought was a piece of lamb crackling and was immediately assaulted by hot spears of pain in my mouth, not unlike the radiating red lightning bolts from the Anbesol ad in the subway. I gasped and reached for a tumbler of water.
"Oh, no, you don't eat those, honey," he admonished. "Those are dried chile peppers." My eyes streamed and my nose began to run as if I'd been servicing a proportionately endowed basketball star. "Here, just eat more of the rice, and—" He summoned Lee with a wave of his hand. "Club soda, quick." (It had been discovered in recent times that all things were solved by club soda. Stains, damage to silk, tumors . . . "Could you bring me some club soda, please?") Lee returned with a glass of sparkling water, which I downed. The cold and carbonation bit into the burn in a helpful way.
"I should have warned you," Lanny apologized, pouring tea for us very much in the manner of a nice guy. "You know why Chinese teacups have no handles? Because the Chinese are smarter than we are. If the cup is too hot to hold with your fingers, then the tea is too hot to drink. But what do we do? We put a handle on the teacup, so we can't tell how hot the tea is. That way we get to pour boiling hot tea right into our mouths, cauterizing our tongues."
As my mouth still burned from the chile peppers to which he had so very nicely introduced me, I entertained the thought that perhaps men like Lanny and Vince were cups with handles, who would nicely stroll you down unreal streets and feed you full of dreamy food until you allowed yourself to be nicely manhandled by them and suddenly felt the surge of their boiling brew scalding your mouth. But I had a rule about going three deep on any metaphor and promptly exited the thought as we were brought orange segments for dessert, instead of the standard lump of melting ice cream in a small silver bowl. Two fortune cookies were nestled among the orange slices and Lanny invited me to pick one, which I did. Lanny took the other and cracked it open. I asked him what his fortune said. "Well, it's supposed to be a joke, but. . ."
He pushed it across the tablecloth to me. Its red ink was no doubt intended to read "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you diet." But it had been printed off center to the right and the t in diet was missing.
Lanny smiled. "What about yours?"
I cracked mine open and tried to locate the slip of paper that revealed my fate, but disconcertingly, I discovered that the cookie was empty.
One interpretation of the title is finding the truth where it is; another is pointing to where the “truth” can really be a lie. Read Where the Truth Lies and enjoy some fine writing and a story that unveils the consequences of self-interest in relationships.
Steve Hopkins, October 28, 2003
ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the November 2003 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Where the Truth Lies.htm
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