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toby's sly lies


By Daniel Vilmure

Simon & Schuster, $21

Reviewed by Helen A. S. Popkin

Ah, the duplicity of youth. Lies, unintentional or otherwise, born more out of insecurity than malice, are lies just the same. This is the world of Toby Sligh, 17-year-old senior at the all-male Sacred Heart High School, who finds himself dealing with the separation of his parents, the mysteries of Catholicism and his own homosexuality.

In his second novel, Daniel Vilmure captures the world of post-adolescence in all its uncertain glory. Told in the first person, Toby's Lie is more a fable with a foggy, vague moral than a wistful anecdote of lost youth. The youth here is not lost; it is fresh and present and every bit as painful.

The story begins:

"My mother was moving out of the house and she took me out of school that afternoon to help her move.

"Family emergency _ she told the principal's receptionist."

And so the first lie, only one of many, is delivered by Toby's mother. Like the best lies, as Vilmure concurs throughout his narrative, there is a shade of truth.

Toby's mother is leaving her family for reasons she refuses to share. Only Toby knows her location, but to keep this secret from his father, as his mother has asked, Toby must lie. It's only one string of a tangled web that spreads throughout Toby's home life, school life and love life.

Toby, salutatorian of his class, is in love and involved with valedictorian Ian Lamb, the enigmatic star of the swim team who hides a mysterious past. Beautiful and golden, Ian took the school by storm, blowing in from New Orleans, charming everyone, despite, or perhaps with the help of, a glass eye. As to the fate of his former living eye, Ian refuses to tell. Toby is obsessed with the inanimate orb which sees nothing, reflects nothing, yet gives the illusion of life.

The glass eye is just one of many dichotomies that surround a story rife with symbolism. Even the lead character's name is duplicitous if you say it quickly enough _ Toby Sligh _ Toby's Lie. Get it?

Toby's lover, Ian, bears a surname that reflects Toby's obsession with Jesus. There are no subtleties in this comparison, especially when Father Scarcross, a priest dying of AIDS whom Ian has asked Toby to watch over, recites a poem to Toby, "He is called by thy name, For he calls himself a Lamb."

Not everything is as glaringly obvious. The gentle nuances that paint Toby's passion and confusion ring lovely and true. Toby's desire to dance with Ian at his senior prom echos the pain of knowing he will have to betray his date and friend Angela Fishback to make this doomed desire come true.

Most subtle of all is his enduring friendship with "Juice," who, like Toby, is leading a double life. Star of the football team, Juice is also a big-time drug dealer. As in the best of friendships, both accept each other for what they are, taking each other to task only when one or the other tries to deny it.

Lyrically executed, Toby's Lie flows gently until it gets near the end, when the network of dishonesty comes to a boil. Perhaps a bit too fantastic for its cut-and-dried ending, Toby's Lie remains an honest exploration of post-adolescent emotions, if not events.

Helen A. S. Popkin is the writer for the X-Press section of the Times.