Like the truth itself, Truth or Something Like It by Curtis Smith is layered, complex, and frequently subtle. Ostensibly, the narrative revolves around a cover-up that begins when protagonist Glen Tate accepts a bribe to keep his mouth shut about some dirt he’s inadvertently uncovered regarding a politician’s recently deceased son. Evoking shades of the recent John Edwards paternity scandal, politician Arthur Lyndon is running a campaign based on a promise of high moral standards that certain of his son’s lifestyle choices threatened to undercut. This element of the story, however, is only one of several that fit comfortably within each other like a series of Russian nesting dolls.
In addition to dealing with the moral ambiguity inherent in accepting hush money, Glen also needs to deal with a perpetual flow of personal crises. In his work as a special-ed teacher, Glen walks a fine line between friendship with and professional distance from the students whom many of his fellow teachers have dismissed as “freaks and geeks.” His only adult friends consist of a sullen cadre of outsiders who work in a used book store, and his girlfriend has just announced that she’s pregnant with his child. As if this weren’t enough, Glen learns from his mother that a former girlfriend of his is about to be married to one of his old rivals from high school. Embarking on a quest to throw a monkey wrench into the impending nuptials, Glen and his best friend Charlie get caught up in a mission to help an erstwhile stripper get out of the business. Given the number of balls he’s juggling, it would be perfectly understandable if Smith flinched or faltered on occasion. What makes this novel so impressive, however, is that he never does.
What ties all of the largely disparate elements together is the concept of truth (and its shady twin, deception). Even when Lyndon’s spectral agents aren’t spying on Glen to make sure he’s keeping his mouth shut, his buttons and bumper stickers are everywhere, claiming that he, unlike other politicians, is a force of truth. The fact that he isn’t only underscores the unsure moral footing that Glen finds himself treading throughout the novel and points to the undeniable fact that he needs to recognize: his own life, like Lyndon’s campaign, is a house of cards built on a foundation of lies (to put it bluntly). Thus, even as he tries to uphold his nice-guy image, Glen struggles with the very contradictions that define his true identity.
Fans of Smith will find a lot to enjoy in his latest novel. As with Sound and Noise, he explores the culture peculiar to the small college towns of central Pennsylvania, and as with all of his fiction, he proves himself a master of fleshing out his characters and studying the human condition. Yet the complexity of Truth or Something Like It also takes Smith into new territory that’s bound to win him more followers.