False Light: A Novel
- By Eric Dezenhall
- Greenleaf Book Group Press
- 343 pp.
- Reviewed by Tom Glenn
- February 24, 2021
Humorous suspense makes for a fun read, occasional stumbles aside.
The novel False Light is presented as “a thrilling tale of revenge,” but it turns out to be a lighthearted romp featuring the first-person narrative of a protagonist who suffers from TICU — “Things I Can’t Use.” He is old-fashioned in every respect. Anything faintly technological (like, say, a cellphone) baffles him. He is a classic comical buffoon.
His name is Sandy Petty, called Fuse by his friends. He’s a fiftyish, balding journalist for the Capitol Incursion, a newspaper reporting on politics in Washington, DC. Out of nowhere, the paper suspends him pending a “disciplinary investigation.”
Meanwhile, a close friend since childhood, Kurt Rossiter, asks Fuse to talk to his college-age daughter (and Fuse’s godchild), Sammy. She tells him she has been raped by Pacho Craig, the star reporter at MyStream, a virtual news network. Pacho is famous for confronting interviewees with accusations of wrongdoing.
Sammy is hesitant to go to the police because she knows the press will report the crime in such a way as to suggest she brought the attack on herself or was a willing participant in it. When Fuse asks Sammy what she wants, her answer is revenge. So, he decides to find ways to undo Pacho on her behalf.
Dezenhall delights in giving many of his characters unusual names. Fuse’s wife is Joey, his 17-year-old daughter goes by Finn. The villain, as mentioned, is called Pacho. Still, the novel is so replete with characters that I had trouble remembering who was who despite their strange monikers.
The plot is set in Bethesda, Maryland, minutes from where I live. The narrative, studded with references to actual places, made the story feel very real to me. On the other hand, the time period is specified as the present but makes no mention of Donald Trump. Given the political reporting the Incursion supposedly does, this felt unreal.
Dezenhall’s language throughout is lively and colorful. Fuse employs vocabulary and phrasing that are both imaginative and complex. He makes plentiful use of the so-called seven dirty words. In fact, all the characters, even the children, sprinkle them all through their speech.
Speaking of dialogue, one oddity is the degree to which the author relies on it. Sometimes, a passage goes on for pages and involves all the characters in the story. This makes False Light the most dialogue-dependent fiction I’ve read.
And humorous references are ubiquitous. Fuse, at one point, asks his father if the school of hard knocks is anywhere near Fort Knox. The father later mentions that the Kennedy family lived in “High Anus.” And when Fuse finds Sammy dressed all in orange, he tells her, “You look very citrus.”
The book’s title comes from a tort defined in U.S. law. To make a false-light claim, a plaintiff must prove that a defendant published information that portrayed the plaintiff in a misleading light. The information published must be highly offensive or embarrassing to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities. I can’t describe how that tort relates to the plot without giving away the ending. Suffice it to say that Dezenhall draws together all the seemingly unrelated strands of the story — and there are lots of them — at the conclusion.
The net result is that there is much to enjoy in False Light, but the book is not without its flaws. The text sometimes gets longwinded. Greater economy would have helped. I also found a dozen or so typos, like verbs left out (e.g., “He to be genuinely laughing at something”).
And in a book so reliant on dialogue, deft structuring is requisite. Too often here, that structure comes across as clumsy. Sometimes, it includes too many attributions (he said, she said); sometimes, too few. Since the characters all speak the same dialect of modern English, the reader has to go back in places and count the quotes to figure out who’s talking.
These shortcomings notwithstanding, False Light is a rollicking read. Eric Dezenhall has created in Fuse a likably incompetent character whom the reader roots for, and he maintains enough suspense that the final dénouement is both surprising and satisfying.
Tom Glenn is a fulltime novelist best known for the 13 years he was in Vietnam more than in the U.S. As a result, three of his novels deal with the war there. He now has six books — two published last year — and 17 short stories in print.