THE LIES BOYS TELL by Lamar Herrin (W. W. Norton: $19.95; 256 pp.) .

Like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, Lamar Herrin’s Ed Reece is an ordinary man who is dying of cancer. But whereas Ivan tries to cling to his conformist life, Ed at 70 seems willing to shuck his identity as pillar of a small Kentucky town, businessman and country-club golfer. He summons his older son, Larry--a former anti-Vietnam War protester who left his own family to live in Mexico--gives him $11,000 from a secret bank account and tells him to buy a van. At night, Ed steals away from his wife, his staid younger son and his daughter. He and Larry, in the great tradition of the American novel, hit the road.

It all seems out of character. Ed is a gentle and caring man; those he leaves behind view his flight as crazy, destructive and selfish. Even Larry isn’t sure what to think. They light out for Iowa, revisiting the territory Ed covered in his early years as a traveling salesman. Then they double back to Alabama so that Ed can die in the house where he was born--if the current occupants will let him. Along the way, they pick up Larry’s ex-wife, now living with a lesbian lawyer, and his pre-teen son.

Eventually, though, it becomes evident that Ed has more on his mind than the romantic notion of closing his life’s circle. He wants to “finish fathering” Larry by giving him another chance at a family. Ed sees his own family as a once-broken bone that must be broken again to heal properly. His wife, whom he has “schooled to a matronly correctness,” needs to flare up in outrage. His sons need to be reconciled. His grandson needs a parting word to the wise.


Herrin (“The Unwritten Chronicles of Robert E. Lee”) makes us believe most of this in a novel that--like Ed himself--is both clumsy and canny, capable of sententious wordiness and flashes of poetic insight. Larry, the pivotal character, is the biggest problem: We learn a lot about him, but what we learn doesn’t cohere. The biggest strength is Herrin’s vision of the possibilities of someone like Ed: an ordinary man capable, even at the end, of extraordinary things.