As you’ll see in our summer issue of The Mockingbird, Michael Malone’s Handling Sin is belatedly perched upon the book shelf here at HQ. It’s a shame the 1983 novel (even taking place in the Piedmont, for crying out loud!), took this long to find us, because not since Wilder’s Theophilus North, or Cobb’s Old Judge Priest, have I had a copy so dogeared and underlined I’ve stopped doing so halfway through. And, much like the other two, it’s incredibly summer-friendly–my pages now smell like some mixture of coastal seaweed and SPF 30–and the 700-page journey ends faster than your one-week summer vacation (or two-week honeymoon).

332376Handling Sin is an Odyssean story of “our hero,” Raleigh Whittier Hayes, responsible, respectable, lifelong citizen of his hometown Thermopylae, North Carolina, and his three-week errand to bring back his prodigal father from the open road back to the hospital where he belongs. Raleigh’s father, Earley, a thrice-married, long-ago-discharged Episcopal minister, is on the run in a yellow Cadillac with a black prostitute, and has put Raleigh (the eldest of two brothers, if you see where this is going) on a wild goose chase–promising the family inheritance only if Raleigh comes to get him. His Quest for family artifacts, hidden secrets, and blatant nonsense will lead Raleigh to Earley’s destination: the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, on October 31, at high noon. This would be all fine, if not strange, if it weren’t for our hero’s general predisposition–like ours–against nonsense. Thus, like his Bayou forefather before him, Walker Percy, Michael Malone threads the story of our (hero’s) disintegration, and salvation, by first allowing him to see the dangers present in the virtues of respectability and pride. From his foolhardy father, Hayes is dealt the gracious (and violent) winds of Chaos and, in so doing, is made to face the way he views himself and world around him. This is uncomfortable for Raleigh and the readers, but for the readers it is also hilarious.

Raleigh Hayes is perpetually amazed by the shenanigans pulled by his family members. To our hero, they’re all crazy. Thankfully, Hayes is married to Aura, the faraway Penelope on this backwards voyage and, unlike the Homeric Penelope, though, Aura’s love pushes Raleigh further into the crazy he must see in himself. As he reaches one of his stops at “Peace and Quiet,” the beach house his little brother has ransacked to hide away from nefarious coke lords, Raleigh begins to see a crack in the orderly way he’s always viewed the world.

It wasn’t easy. Hayes liked to think of himself as a man of active virtues; he despised passivity and was contemptuous of sloth, in himself and in others. Every habit encoded in his muscles kept them twitching to return to Thermopylae until the day came to fly to New Orleans and nab his errant parent, to return to take up the plow of cultivating new insurance policies, to take up the rake of combing through the confusion of his home. Every earnest fiber in his brain was convinced that, surely, without him, his clients would vanish, his family would collapse; they and he would all sink quickly into the chasm of poverty and despair, and end their days morosely cramped together in a dank debtor’s prison.

It was shocking today to hear (his secretary) tell him business was going on as usual; it was shocking to hear Aura tell him that, while of course they missed him enormously, life was going on as usual, except more dramatically now that she had rediscovered, like an old forgotten bank account, a rich world of interests she’d set aside to raise the twins. It was almost a disappointment to hear that the house had not burned down, that the twins had not crashed the cars, that order had not slid off its throne and rolled away. It was almost a blow to his self-esteem. It was almost a foretaste of death.

Yes, the first hard lesson Raleigh Hayes had to force himself to master this slow afternoon at “Peace and Quiet” was that he had to simply learn to wait, and the second lesson, even harder, was that he could stand still without the world’s stopping too, and so hurling out of its orbit into Chaos. He could let go of the reins without the horses smashing the sun into one planet after another, incinerating the universe.

While, with rippled brow, Hayes thought all this through, he was not, naturally, gazing on the beach out over the eternal sea. He was busily repairing everything he could find in his rental property, busily firing his indignant realtor for failing to telephone him personally before giving (his younger brother) the key to his house, busily making collect phone calls full of instructions to (his secretary), and to Aura–telling her to deposit this money there, and that money here, and water the following plants, and instruct their lawyer to see Pierce’s lawyer about the deed to Knoll Pond, and so forth until she said, “Raleigh, slow down.” In fact, he’d set himself so many busy tasks, he’d barely finished checking the checks on his list when it was time to load up…

Nothing could have been more aggravating than to hear Aura tell him to relax and consider the next two weeks a vacation. He never took vacations, except to come to the beach and do what he was doing now–repair things. He couldn’t afford vacations; he didn’t have the time and he didn’t have the money. Now, the truth was, he did have both, and this was the third hard lesson Raleigh struggled all day to accept. The truth was, he could spare two weeks, and two weeks could spare him. The truth was, if he never work another day in his life (and if he didn’t live too long, and if he continued his careful frugality), he could live until he died on what he’d already earned, saved, inherited, and invested, and, afterward his family could live quite nicely on his insurance. Raleigh didn’t want to believe that he had time and money to spare; it rattled every plank of the foundation on which he’d build the stable scaffold of his Life’s Plan. On the other hand, he had a great respect for the truth, and therefore he was struggling.