Michael Malone, right at the outset, takes great care to present this large comic novel as an old-fashioned entertainment. At the head of the epigraph from which the title is taken (a 1303 poem by Robert of Brunne), he writes, “This book is cald Handlying Synne. It contains Tales and Marvels.” The descriptive chapter headings are reminiscent of Henry Fielding—“In Which the Hero Is Introduced and Receives a Blow,” for example—and Fielding, along with Miguel Cervantes and Charles Dickens, is invoked in the acknowledgments.
These touches, in addition to an unabashedly farfetched plot, a great array of highly colored characters and settings, and the sheer number of pages in the book, suggest that Michael Malone set out deliberately to appeal to a mass audience. At the same time he is fundamentally serious. His novel is in some ways comparable to the fiction of John Irving, from The World According to Garp (1978) onward: Both writers seem to have ambitions to become the Dickens of contemporary American literature. Whereas Irving is often solemn and portentous, even embarrassingly sentimental, Malone, writing with tongue in cheek at least half the time, maintains with only a few lapses a deft seriocomic tone throughout. He depends for his appeal not on sex, of which the book contains very little, or violence, of which there is somewhat more, but on vividly detailed comic action in a variety of colorful landscapes. Though Handling Sin is by no means a profound psychological novel, Malone does pay due attention to his hero’s inner life; while the focus is on the physical quest, the hero’s inner struggle and eventual triumph ring true. This is a satisfying work of fiction, then. Much more than Irving, Malone gives value for money.
The device which Malone uses to set his story in motion is a good instance of the kind of compromise involved in writing a serious commercial novel. The hero, Raleigh Hayes, is a prosperous life-insurance agent, with a bright and attractive wife and troublesome sixteen-year-old twin daughters, living in Thermopylae, North Carolina. He owns, as Malone says in the prologue, “his own house, his own business, two oceanfront rental properties”: he is a member of “the Civitans, the Chamber of Commerce, the Baptist Church”: he is known to all his acquaintances as “respectable, smart, steady, honest, punctual, decent Raleigh Hayes.” He is also ripe for a fall: “The day [comes] when the members of the court of Heaven [take] their places in the presence of the Lord.” Specifically, Raleigh receives a mysterious tape-recorded message from his father, Earley, who is seventy years old and ill. Earley, by the time Raleigh receives the message, has discharged himself from the hospital against medical advice and set off for New Orleans in a yellow Cadillac convertible with a black teenage girl. He presents his son with a series of preposterous tasks: to locate a black musician named Jubal Rogers as well as Raleigh’s black sheep half brother, Gates Hayes, and bring them, along with Grandma Tiny’s trunk, a family Bible, and a bust which Raleigh will have to steal out of the public library, to Earley in New Orleans. Raleigh must also buy a tract of land from a man who, hating the Hayeses as he does, will surely be unwilling to sell it. If he succeeds, he inherits his father’s fortune, which, Earley hints, is larger than Raleigh had ever guessed; if he fails, or worse yet declines to try, he gets nothing.
Raleigh thinks that his father is crazy, but he is not: Rather he is out to right an ancient wrong and at the same time to teach his son a lesson. Billie Rogers, the black girl in the Cadillac with Earley, is the granddaughter of Jubal Rogers and Victoria Hayes, Earley’s sister; long ago, Earley had deliberately failed to deliver a message between the lovers and had advised his sister to give the baby up for adoption and put the whole affair behind her. This is to say that Malone has plotted his novel carefully. Still it is hard to escape the conclusion that whereas Tom Jones travels to London to seek his fortune, and Don Quixote rides in the service of his cracked vision, Raleigh Hayes sets off on his roundabout journey because his author wants to get him out of Thermopylae so that he can have picturesque adventures. (He does not, after all, have the least need of his father’s fortune.) That the quest hero is a highly respectable and unadventurous man is part of the joke—and the joke is a good one—but it does require lively footwork from the author and willing suspension of disbelief from the reader.
Malone works his quest motifs hard, with tongue in cheek. If Quixote has his Sancho Panza, Raleigh has Mingo Sheffield, his fat, simultaneously obnoxious and endearing neighbor. These two become involved through an intricate sequence of events (Mingo is falsely accused of a murder which, as it turns out, was never actually committed). After a series of adventures in Thermopylae, in the course of which Raleigh succeeds in stealing the bust and buying the land, there two set off for the coast of South Carolina to look for Raleigh’s half brother, Gates.
In his invention of adventures for his hero to fall into, Malone is at his best. In its structure, from Raleigh’s departure until...
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