The Author Nobody's Met

Anthony Godby Johnson grew up in a world so depraved that it staggers even those calloused to the headlines about child abuse. His parents denied him a bed, a toothbrush and sustenance of any kind, be it scraps of food or a single Christmas present. He says they beat him and allowed their friends to rape him. Four years ago, at the age of 11 and on the verge of suicide, Tony fled into the arms of a hot-line counselor and a New York City woman who, together, sheltered him and then adopted him. Just when he thought he had found happiness, Tony learned he was dying of AIDS. More harrowing than Dickens, more surreal than Kafka, Tony's story is all the more compelling because it's true.

Or is it?

Although Tony's book, A Rock and a Hard Place (213 pages. Crown. $20), sent USA Today cooing about the "boy with a powerful will to love" and television talk shows clamoring for interviews, there is no evidence that Tony exists beyond a telephone voice that may--or may not-be that of a 15-year-old boy. Trying to find the real Tony is like getting trapped in a page of "Where's Waldo?"

Paul Monette, the award-winning author who wrote the foreword to the book, has never met Tony in person. Nor has television's Fred Rogers, who wrote the afterword. Tony's agent has never seen him, nor have Crown's president and marketing director nor Tony's editor and publicist. The litany of Tony nonsightings could populate an Elvis convention: Norma Godin, executive director of the New Jersey Make-A-Wish Foundation, which gave Tony a computer, has never met Tony. Neither has her son Scott, who installed the computer in his house. Tony's "big brother," ESPN sportscaster Keith Oberman, has never seen him, though they're writing a novel together by phone. And most puzzling, Jack Godby, the HIV counselor Tony embraced as an extra dad, has never seen him face to face, though he "tucks" him into bed every night by phone.

The only person NEWSWEEK could find who says she has seen Tony is his adoptive mother, and she ferociously guards every shred of information. No one can meet him, she says, because Tony has AIDS, TB, one amputated leg and a fever that hasn't gone below 103 in a month. She also won't reveal where he lives, went to school or where he's been hospitalized, because of unspecified threats from indescribable friends of his unnamed birthparents. She won't even reveal her own name on the record.

So, who's Tony? Crown president Michelle Sidrane insists there is a real boy behind the descriptions of the blond, blue-eyed five-footer. But Crown officials, Tony's agent Wendy Weil and "Dad" Godby refused repeated requests for proof. "With all the evidence and information we have, Crown is satisfied," said spokesman Andrew Martin.

That leaves Tony as a voice, a soprano that could belong to a woman as convincingly as to a boy. And he uses it eagerly, despite family protestations that his lungs have been ravaged by pneumonia and that he relies on an oxygen tank. Or does he? Last week, in a lengthy phone interview with NEWSWEEK and in a syndicated radio chat, Tony never once wheezed, coughed or struggled for breath. As for his quarantine, a leading expert in pediatric AIDS says that may be overreacting, even if Tony has drug-resistant TB. "There are precautions and they're pretty well defined," said Dr. Ayre Rubenstein at New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "You can absolutely go in with a mask."

Even threats to his life seem incredible. Godby says Tony's parents were tried and sent to prison for 25 years to life on charges stemming from the abuse, yet no one in the Manhattan D.A.'s office, which has prosecuted some of the most notorious abuse cases, can recall any that even approaches the description Tony sets out.

Tony doesn't much care: "It's a book about my feelings and my perceptions," he told NEWSWEEK. He also provided several sketches and self-portraits (left). But his prose hardly seems the stuff of adolescent musings: "Diseases were a means of financing sports cars for cocky physicians who thought they had the world by the short hairs by virtue of their prescription pads," he writes in one passage. Similarly, Tony's cultural markers seem closer to a man in his 40s than a kid pushing puberty. Zeke-the-janitor's eyeglasses are "as thick as Coke bottles," writes a boy who grew up in an era of recyclable cans.

Who's the author behind Tony? One possibility is Monette, 47, whose moving works about AIDS Tony seems to mimic and who declared in a New York Times interview last year, "I've become a very political creature." He couldn't be reached, but Weil, his agent, denies Monette scripted Tony. Still, both know baseball and books. Both find themselves in Connecticut. Both loathe book reports and love plush afghans. In his 1991 novel "Halfway Home," Monette wrote: "I could hear the tears begin to gather in her voice, sloppy as an Irish wake." Curiously, Godby, who claims he can't write a whit, includes a similar phrase in his introduction to Tony's book: "He said with a tear in his voice that he thought we should start a morphine drip."

Whoever he is, Tony seems to dare the reader to find him: "Charlotte, the spider in Charlotte's Web, knew what she was talking about when she said that humans were gullible, that they believed anything they saw in print." For Tony, the question is whether the power of his message will get tangled up in the web he's spun.