Home » USA » Thomas Savage » The Liar

Thomas Savage: The Liar

This was a good idea but somehow it didn’t quite work. Maybe it didn’t have the passion of Power of the Dog or maybe it’s just because the style is so low key and reads as though not only was it set in the 1930s but was written in the 1930s. This is not to say that it is a bad novel. It certainly is not. It is written well and tells a good story. It just somehow never really takes off.

The eponymous liar is Hal. This might be part of the problem. While he certainly is a liar and his son inherits this, his lies are, frankly, minor, told either to cover up for some misdemeanour or to exaggerate his past, something many of us have done. None of them leads to major catastrophe. We first meet Hal when he is seven in the early part of the twentieth century. His father is ill and will die soon after. Hal is accused of stealing his mother’s brooch and denies it. He is punished for the lie, not for the theft. In fact, as the narrator tells us, he is innocent. After his father’s death, his mother remarries. As the only child, he is cosseted by his mother, though she is rather tight-fisted, not giving him money to go to college. She is also very conventional and expects her son to be the same. Hal has a few things going for him. He is very good-looking, has a good physique and is very affable. Everyone likes him. However, he has no practical sense, preferring to spend his time reading, and no initiative whatsoever, except for his occasional lies. He finds it easy to get a job, as his good looks and affable nature are both attractive to employers. However, he also finds it difficult to hold onto a job, either because of his lack of initiative or because of some silly lie. As a result he jumps from job to job finally, when he is very much older, ending up as a sewing machine salesman.

One of his lies – that he is working late when he is actually seeing a girl – costs him a job but it is his first girlfriend that benefits. He meets Fern in a café where she is working as a waitress. Fern also has lost her father (we later learn that he killed himself) and is living with her mother, Glad, who is a second shift telephone operator. Fern takes him home to see her weakened dog and he tries to help and becomes friends with both mother and daughter. However, Glad throws him out when the dog dies, blaming him. He finds another jobs that requires travelling and meets Anne. Anne is the daughter of a ranch-owning couple but it is the mother who rules the roost and who, indeed, has everyone from her husband to the local store owners in a state of perpetual fear. Anne marries Hal, partially for his good looks but also to spite her mother. Anne, who has inherited her mother’s toughness, soon tires of Hal’s weakness and leaves him, only to find that she is pregnant. When she goes to him to tell him, she finds that he has taken up with Fern again and is living with Fern and her mother.

The rest of the novel alternates the stories of Hal and his son, Gerald, whom he has not seen. Fern dies in the Spanish influenza epidemic but Hal continues to live with Glad. They are joined by his mother when she makes a foolish investment in 1929 and loses everything. Hal writes to Gerald and sends him Christmas and birthday presents. In his letters, he exaggerates his situation while, in reality, he continues to drift. Anne, meanwhile, has married one of the local ranchers, who bitterly resents his stepson, particularly when they do not have children of their own. Gerald is confused about his identity and who his father is and struggles with this, though takes his father’s well-meaning advice to heart. When he is seventeen, he announces his intention of visiting his father but Hal puts him off. At the same time, Anne tells Gerald that they split because Hal cheated on her and Gerald cuts off all contact with Hal. Gerald goes to college, meets and marries Helen and writes a novel. After initial struggles, the novel is published and makes him a lot of money. Gerald turns to drink and starts lying to Helen when he is having an affair. Finally, Hal comes out to visit them, still lying. Like the rest of the book, the ending is somewhat of an anti-climax.

Publishing history

First published 1969 by Little, Brown