The dominant voice in the novel is that of Alice Lovett, who we soon learn was the “private school girl” in question. Because she can’t remember what happened, she has only the crude tale the lacrosse players shared — one that spread throughout the community — and remains haunted by both the trauma of that night and the taunting she endured after.
Now in her early 30s, Alice works as a ghostwriter, telling other people’s stories for a living. Her only connection to her nightmarish high school experience is her old friend Haley Moreland, with whom she shared a teenage love of horror movies. Haley urges Alice to finally go public with her story. But nothing about Alice’s story, or this novel, is so simple.
“True Story” unwinds through a variety of “found” and fashioned narratives spanning nearly two decades that become a bricolage we assemble ourselves. We read Alice and Haley’s eighth-grade horror screenplays, drafts of Alice’s college admissions essays, complete with vapid tutor comments (“I’m surprised you love horror movies. … I want to know why. Can this essay go deeper?”), Alice’s emails to Haley after fleeing an abusive relationship. A pair of bookending letters from Alice to Haley do a lot of the work to help us assemble what happened that night, to get at the “true story,” even as the term itself feels increasingly useless, deceptive.
The most incisive sections, however, are more traditional narratives devoted to Nick Brothers, a teammate of the two lacrosse players who took Alice home that night. When we meet him, he’s a callow jock enjoying the last gasps of high school sports prestige. At first, whatever his teammates did to the “private school girl” is merely a great, dirty story to him. When authorities fleetingly intervene, it becomes a “scare” that soon evaporates as a tide of himpathy rises for the accused players. “Things had turned out all right,” Nick tells us after the investigation is dropped. “We had been through something together, we agreed, and it had made us stronger.”
As the years pass, Nick’s precarious masculinity erodes. The intense partying of his teenage years has curdled into alcoholism and an overall failure to launch. In one tour de force section, we join 26-year-old Nick as he makes his way to a cabin in the woods for a “lost weekend” of marathon drinking. Evoking one of Kenneth Lonergan’s broken and arrested white men, he mourns his failures as he drives, savoring the comfort of a $70 bottle of bourbon between his legs to “remind himself of the reward on its way.” As he approaches the cabin, however, we swap genres, entering swiftly into the sinister foreboding of a thriller before moving into body horror as Nick, over the course of two days, undoes himself with drink and confusion.