July 28, 2008 12:00 PM

by John Dufresne

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Looking back on a crazed childhood in a town where identities seemed to shift with the wind, the narrator of Dufresne’s witty and affecting Requiem, Mass. realizes that getting to the truth may be impossible. “Life,” he observes, “gets terribly roiled and scrambled very quickly.”

Raised on the wrong side of town, Johnny and his impertinent little sister Audrey (who wears cowboy boots with her Catholic-school uniform) are left with a psychopathic mother who believes they’re imposters playing the role of her children and comes close to igniting herself in a tub full of gasoline. In the meantime, their truck-driver dad, Rainey, is on the road. As Johnny discovers, Rainey’s “gratuitous and fruitless lies” to drinking buddies are telling: He’s a charming sociopath with another family stashed in Florida and a Crown Royal sack full of fake driver’s licenses in his rig. “I get to live a dozen lives,” he tells his son. Multiple identities or no, few in Requiem find salvation, but Dufresne’s incandescent novel makes it clear that just living to tell a tale can be enough.