The best way to understand the character of Gates in Michael Malone’s novel Handling Sin is to understand who he is not: He is not his older half-brother Raleigh Whittier Hayes, who, in a brief prologue, the author describes as a paragon of virtue, a man so respectable that he’s basically boring:
“. . .a decent citizen and responsible family man named Raleigh Whittier Hayes, who obeyed the law and tried to do the right thing.”
“Everyone who knew him called him reliable Raleigh, hardworking Raleigh, fair-and-square Raleigh, and, in general, respectable, smart, steady, honest, punctual, decent Raleigh Hayes.”
Malone is piling it on thick for a reason. Handling Sin is the quintessential “buddy story,” involving two or more individuals on an impromptu road trip during which all manner of mishaps and peculiar encounters will inevitably occur. Raleigh is destined to become the ‘fish out of water’ among the eccentric and occasionally threatening individuals he and his good-natured, rotund friend Mingo will encounter during the course of their journey in search of Raleigh and Gates’ father, Earley, a former Episcopal priest who has essentially escaped from a hospital with a female mental patient and a bizarre list of demands that Raleigh is expected to execute lest an inheritance be jeopardized. It’s all very contrived, but that’s the point of the novel, and why a student shouldn’t look too deeply for meaning in the characters.
Gates is the anti-Raleigh. He’s a ne’er-do-well younger sibling who was the occasional butt of his older brother’s pranks, as in the following brief passage, in which Raleigh, anxious about the crime he has just committed, reflects on the rare instance of impropriety in his life:
“. . .crime was crime, and now he was a criminal. He had never stolen a thing in his life. No, Hayes instantly admitted, that wasn’t true. He had stolen on at least a half-a-dozen previous occasions, each of which, when remembered, seared his brain like a brand. . .Once, he had stolen and hidden in the trash can a jack-in-the-box belonging to his little brother Gates; first, because he couldn’t stand listening to ‘Pop-Goes-the-Weasel’ anymore and, perhaps, too, horribly enough, because he knew how much Gates liked it.”
If Raleigh grows up to be a paragon of virtue, however, Gates’ life takes a distinctly different track. He has been in prison, and is usually last heard-from when he’s seeking a hand-out. It is late in the novel, Chapter 17, to be precise, when Malone devotes space to the backstory between the two half-brothers.
“No two men, bound by blood, tied by upbringing, could be more dissimilar. They had nothing in common but a father, blue eyes and curly hair. They shared nothing but the past. Gates had stopped worshipping Raleigh at four, stopped admiring him at seven, and started hating him at twelve, when his older sibling became to him simply a churlish, niggardly, self-righteous, pompous square object to be maneuvered; a dull, smug beaver to be weaseled into a begrudging loan. For his part, Raleigh had resented Gates at birth . . .First of all, Gates had always been careless with private property, including Raleigh’s – scratching his records, tearing his books, losing his basketball, breaking his camera, denting is car, stealing his change, his socks, his anything and everything that Gates felt a momentary fancy to own or sell or, most often, wreck and forget.”
In short, the distinctions between these two brothers are stark, and Malone uses the character of Gates to help escalate Raleigh’s mounting trials and tribulations, as when Gates gets the brothers involved in a cocaine deal with underworld figures, and even commits the inordinately dangerous sin of stealing from said underworld figures.
Gates is more than a plot contrivance, but he exists primarily to ensure that Raleigh’s adventure is as bumpy as humanly possible.