by Gerald Duff; TCU Press, 2011; 160 pages; $21.95
“I have spent a lifetime depending on what not telling the truth will do to get me by.”
That truth is at the heart of this deeply affecting memoir by Gerald Duff, author most recently of Fire Ants, a remarkable collection of short stories many of which are set in the East Texas of Duff’s youth. Home Truths is just as wickedly comic and startling as that collection of stories; the memoir is honest and brave, and it contains not one bit of self-pity.
The childhood of Gerald Duff in East Texas and on the Gulf Coast was not one of enviable adventure. It was one of dependency, not freedom. It was one of loss, for Big Willie Duff, his father, lost his job with the petro-chemical industry in the Golden Triangle of Texas at the end of World War II. It was one of leave-taking, of return to “the logged-out, farmed-out woods of East Texas, the remnants of the culture of the settlers from the Old South who came into Texas after the Civil War.”
Young Gerald’s way of finding his place in the harsh reality of this move back East? Lies. It is called survival. Duff even distinguishes between the lies he used: “There were lies of need and lies of convenience.” There were lies at home, lies in church, lies at school (some necessitated by what he brought forth from his lunch bag and had to display in the school lunchroom, especially the slices of bread he had to beg from an unwilling relative).
Home Truths resonates with the honesty of Duff’s recounting those early years and of the formative nature of the lies he learned to tell. It was those lies, that ability, which enabled him to become the author of a collection of novels and stories that really are remarkable in their risk-taking and “prevarication.”
To understand the subtlety and control of Duff as author is to be enthralled by the simplicity of the tales from his youth, only to be spellbound by the increasing haughtiness, trepidation and guilt about his leave-taking from Texas, his desperation to enter college, his need to become a professor of English by embracing his “non-qualitative mind.”
As Duff recounts his growth, the language of Home Truths matures. Compare the simplicity of his early stories about school in East Texas to the ironies of, say, his lampooning the subtle class system he faced at Vanderbilt University: “I didn’t know that this judging of my breeding was taking place at the time, not being up on the intricacies of the classification dance performed by upper class Southerners who have learned to read, but it was on in full force.”
At the end of his book, Duff returns to the graveyard in East Texas where most of his family is buried, the place where his dying mother begged him not to be buried but is nonetheless. He knows that lying has given him all that he cherishes about his world. But he movingly reminds us, “Yet I know the truth when I see it.” That is what makes Home Truths as essential a book as those of the many Southern writers Gerald Duff honors during the course of his poignant memoir.
Steven Whitton is professor of English at Jacksonville State University.