Rules for Lying – Anne Corbitt. Cape Girardeau, MO: Southeast Missouri State University Press. 2016.
The rules seem easy: Keep the details simple. Never underestimate the power of denial. Tell the truth about everything except what you want to hide. Don’t say more than you have to.
But when these rules are enacted by a community of educators, parents and students, what is true and what is false becomes complex. Anne Corbitt’s debut novel speaks to the social and psychological repercussions of lying in a story as current as today’s Twitter feeds. Set in a suburban Atlanta community, sophomore Langley lures boyfriend Kevin to a hidden area in the locker room for some after school personal time. But when custodian Oliver discovers their tryst, Langley claims rape. Complicating the situation is Oliver’s daughter, Eleanor, who (a) told best friend Lindsay about the private spot and (b) has an equally strong crush on Kevin, calling him “first, like the front seat of a car.” Parents are notified; students choose sides; chaos erupts.
One strength of Corbitt’s novel is the way she nails the subtle details of high school – the smells of the hallways, the cafeteria food, the marching band practice, the motivational posters in the counselor’s office. All these details and more pull the reader to a time and place full of hall passes and locker combinations that never seem to change. Set in the late 1990’s, Langley may not be cyberbullied, but the notes pushed under the front door of her home are just as frightening. The same applies to Kevin. He may not own a cellphone with internet connection, but his desire to run from his problems, including a father who believes the worse in him, is just as true for Kevin as any 21st century teen.
Like the ripples that spread when a rock is thrown into water, the he-said / she-said nature of the plot travels outward exposing other lies. Divorced father Oliver secretly spies on his ex who cheated on him with her Yoga instructor. Kevin’s mother Grace still longs for absolution from making a false claim of rape against a college professor. Principal Carter is on the verge of running away with the school counselor. All the kids seem to sneak vodka from their parent’s well-stocked liquor cabinets. As the police investigate, lawyers are retained and the community takes sides. Soon the matter seems no longer an issue of who to believe than how to survive a media onslaught, something public schools never do well.
Rules for Lying is also about change – the way that time shifts perspective on the causes and effects of calamity. “Once a man could point to a problem and say there, that’s it,” ponders Oliver. “But now trouble snuck from any direction . . . Families split open. Men took things that didn’t belong to them. Children slipped their underwear past their knees, and strangers invaded schools with firearms.”
His comment seems bleak, but Corbitt’s book is positive. Each character emerges from their personal crucible stronger, wiser, and better able to face what comes next.
My Wine Recommendation
At the end of a difficult week, both Langley and Kevin’s parents deserve a bracing drink or perhaps a visit to a regional winery. Thankfully, north Georgia has several good ones to choose from. One of my favorites is Fainting Goat near Jasper. The name itself would encourage the parents to laugh at life’s problems as they take in the panoramic mountain views and drink the vineyard’s most popular wine: Fainting Goat Republic. Aged in French oak barrels, this red is produced from Italian grapes and has flavors of blackberry and vanilla. $38.