Thursday, July 31, 2008

Handling Sin (A Book Review)

I have not had internet access since Sunday afternoon. I know there’s lots of great posts out there and I need to do some catching up. But not today. Rest assured, where I’ve been the fishing has been okay and the views from the lake wonderful and this is doing great things to my stress (see previous post). I’ve been able to sail a bit and do some reading and much needed planning. I also had a chance to write a book review for Maggie’s Summer Southern Reading Challenge. This is my third book and completes the challenge, except that I need to write a post about what I learned and I will review another book so I can say something about a mule (allowing me another opportunity to win a copy of a book I’m planning on reading; who thinks up these things?). I had to come back to town today for some meetings and I’ll be back to civilization on Saturday—for just a week—then it’s off for a canoeing and fishing adventure in the wilds of Western Ontario.

Michael Malone, Handling Sin (New York: Washington Square Press, 1986), 656 pages.

In the last fifteen days of March (which falls on this particular year at the end of Lent) Raleigh Whittier Hayes watches his life collapse only to experience a resurrection between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The turmoil begins on the Ides of March at a luncheon for Thermopylae’s Civitans Club, held at the Lotus House. All the leading business leaders of this Piedmont town in North Carolina begin to receive bad news in their fortune cookies. Some advise that they’ll be betrayed or will die of cancer. The paper in Raleigh’s fortune cookie reads: “You will go completely to pieces by the end of the month.”

Raleigh is a successful businessman. He owes an insurance company and has a nice home, two oceanfront rentals, two automobiles, and a retirement fund. He’s well thought of by other people in the community as a man who can be trusted and who is honest and does what is right. He’s extremely loyal, moral, and decent, and even though he’s a member of a Baptist Church, he really doesn’t put much stock in God. His lack of faith occurred when he first joined the church. Raleigh thought he’d made an agreement with God, to believe in the Almighty if he was given the strength of Samson. Feeling that God didn’t keep up his end of the bargain, Raleigh assumes God isn’t interested in human affairs.

We learn in the Prologue that “The day came when the members of the court of Heaven took their places in the presence of the Lord.” Like Job of old, Raleigh will be tested. It all starts with him learning that his father has escaped from the hospital with a black teenage girl and is driving a new Cadillac to New Orleans. The older Hayes wants his son to do a few errands for him and then to meet him in the Crescent City. Thus begins Raleigh’s adventure.

Raleigh’s father is the (ex) Reverend Earley Hayes, a former Episcopalian priest who had been removed from his church for extra-martial affairs. Among the things Raleigh is to collect and bring with him to New Orleans is a statue of one of Thermopylae’s leading citizens, a trumpet, an old chest, a bluesman from Charleston, and his half-brother Gates. His father also wants Raleigh to buy for himself a piece of lakefront property. Raleigh is torn, but because of loyalty to the father and fear he’ll be written out of the will, he begins the quest. He buys the property for way less than its value because the man who owns it thinks Raleigh is blackmailing him because of his extra-martial affairs (of which he assumes Raleigh knows about, but he really doesn’t, which makes for perhaps the funniest real estate transaction ever put to print). Raleigh, in a complete out-of-character manner, also breaks into the library to steal the plaster statue residing in the basement. In addition to his father’s request, Raleigh brings along Mingo, his best friend (who has accused Raleigh of having an affair with his wife). Along the way they are rolled by punks, spend time recovering with nuns, encounter Marines when they trespass onto a military base (mistaking the sign for Topsail Beach for Top Soil and driving a dirt road at night onto the Marine’s domain. While Raleigh is having his own adventure, his wife back home is becoming a leader of the “Mothers for Peace” and taking on the local congressman.

This book is filled with characters. Many have ties to the Blues, but then there’s a Jewish thief (whose family leaves out two empty chairs on Passover, one for Elijah, the other for the wayward crook), mobsters, drug runners, Klansman, and a pregnant teenage girl (Mingo helps her deliver the baby). The events take place on a journey to New Orleans, with a detour over to the coast of North Carolina, stopping around Jacksonville and then Kure Beach, on to South Carolina with stops at Myrtle Beach and on to Charleston, and then Atlanta. While in Atlanta, the folks now travelling with Raleigh has it out with a group of mobsters and drug runners at Stone Mountain, in what may be the funniest chase scene ever written. They finally make it to New Orleans, where Raleigh catches up with his Dad on Good Friday. Along the way we learn some interesting family secrets such as the identity of the girl that was in his father’s Cadillac when he escaped from the hospital (if I said anything more, I’d spoil the book and by the time I explained it, this review would be qualify as an extended essay). Finally, on Easter Sunday, an enlightened Raleigh is back at Thermopylae in church, sitting with his beloved wife, who is now a candidate for Mayor.

This is a grand book, with many twist and turns. It’s amazing that Malone can tie most everything together.

In an interview, Malone admitted his novel is a modern retelling of the Don Quixote. Malone, in his acknowledgments credits Miguel Cervantes along with Henry Fielding and Charles Dickens. The book is filled with insight into issues of faith as well as family secrets. It deals with Southern issues such as racism, in a humorous way. I recommend it! You’ll have many days of laughter.
For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.


  1. I read this one years ago and was prompted to write a note to Michael Malone, who answered me! An obit was in our paper with the name of a woman that was also the name of a character in this book, and I sent it to him. He said it wasn't the first time that had happened (which is odd).

    I loved this book, and you are right, it will bring many, many laughs!!

  2. Only you Southerners can make racism funny. ;-)

  3. Oh, I'm in! This sounds like a book I'd really enjoy!

  4. Kenju, I remember you had suggested the book to me.

    Murf, read the book and then let's see what you say.

    Diane, you'll have a great laughs, there are some wonderful scenes in this books.

    TO EVERYONE: For some reason, my sitemeter was causing an error and keeping people from accessing my site via Explorer. I've removed sitemeter for the time being and hope this helps.

  5. Thanks for the review; this one's definitely going on the Wish List. I'm a huge Cervantes fan.


  6. Sage: Isn't it amazing how these characters can sweep you off into another world? Very rich review!

  7. Wow, what a complex - yet fascinating - book. Great job reviewing it, Sage. I just might have to pick this one up!

  8. It sounds wonderful but I moved to the South as I love Southern literature so much

  9. Sounds like a very good book!
    Maybe it is really boring as hxxx, but you do make it sound really interesting.

    So, any more dreams lately?

  10. Randall, I hope you enjoy it.

    Capt, thanks

    Michael, it's often a nice escape to be swept into that other world

    Bone, the I-tube video said it was no longer available, but I seen the film many times. THANKS! (btw, my truck needs to be washed)

    Pia, have you read any Malone? THis is my first, his other "classic" is actually set in NE and he's lived there (PhD from Harvard) as well as been chief write for soap operas. He's now back south and his wife is head of the English Dept. at Duke. He has a real talent for dialogue

    Mother Hen, it's really boring as all get out, but I'm a book seller and get a cut off its profit :) Of course, that ain't true. As for dreams, yes, I dreamed this morning and also yesterdays, but there is no way I'd post yesterdays (as I don't write about work) and I'm not sure about today's dream as it involves a significant someone in my past whom I've not seen in a quarter century (that ought to make you wonder, eh?) :)

  11. I need to stop reading your blog 'cause everytime I do I come away with more books on my "to read" list! What a wonderful way with words you have. Will definitely take a look at this one soon!

  12. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.