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HANDLING SIN by Michael Malone (Little, Brown: $17.95; 544 pp.)

April 06, 1986|RICHARD EDER

Among those acknowledged in Michael Malone's prefatory note to "Handling Sin" are 20th Century Fox, which may make a movie out of it, and Miguel de Cervantes, Henry Fielding and Charles Dickens. He thanks the last three for their "friendship, nudges, winks and wise counsel."

With all this nudging, winking and negotiating--the author's agent is also credited--it's not surprising that Malone's attempt at a modern picaresque novel lurches in every conceivable direction on its way from North Carolina to New Orleans.

It is not hard to hypothesize the influence of the aforementioned writers, film company and agent in this tale of a small-town insurance man learning, through a series of adventures, to relax and get in touch with life. It is harder, but possible, to believe that Malone is a writer of some talent, wit and earnestness who has let his mentors shanghai him.

To touch very briefly on the novel's hyperactive plot, Raleigh Hayes, of Thermopylae, N.C., is goaded out of his everyday routine by a message from his dying father. This former minister, trumpet player and all-round reprobate orders his son to accomplish a number of difficult errands and meet him some weeks later in New Orleans. Raleigh's tasks, which include stealing a bust from the local library and searching for a couple of elusive and recalcitrant relatives, get him into all kinds of trouble. They also assemble around him an eccentric band of traveling companions.

Cervantes can be credited, I guess, for Raleigh's Sancho Panza, a greedy, clamorous but ultimately valiant naif, who comes along with with him; and for a damsel in distress whom they succor. Dickens is more or less traceable from the notion of a mission imposed by an aged and long-gone relative, the reward for which will be an inheritance. Fielding may have suggested the tone, which the publishers describe as rollicking.

As for 20th Century Fox, there is the slapstick, the nurtured hilarity, the assortment of single-trait oddballs and a climactic scene involving a sword duel, a chase by pedal boat, golf cart and cable car, and an assault on an amusement park train. The only question is whether a film or a TV series is being aimed at.

Malone has a feel for Southern landscape and Southern tradition. He interlards Raleigh's adventures with long family accounts of the gaudy aviary that produced this sober penguin. Many of the characters are studiedly picturesque, as if Thermopylae were the Carolina franchise for Garrison Keillor's "Lake Wobegon." But several of the family members are memorable; particularly, Flonnie Rogers, an old black servant and live-in companion to Raleigh's grandmother. Flonnie is fierce, uncorruptible and a Jeremiah against what she calls "God's first mess-up--this world of trash."

Raleigh's adventures are certainly varied and energetic. Driving a white Cadillac, he is assaulted by a vanload of Hell's Angels, finds shelter in a hospice run by post-modern nuns, gets stuck in a Carolina marsh and has to be rescued by a squad of Marines. He helps Gates, a half-brother, collect a boatload of cocaine off the Carolina coast and eludes or vanquishes various murderous thugs who pursue them. He goes in search of a black jazz musician who was the lover of one of his aunts, picks up a retired gangster named Berg who travels with a bass fiddle, and much, much more. Eventually, he finds his father, playing jazz in front of a New Orleans cathedral.

There is a forced quality to all this, a spirit of "what can we think of next?" as if vast comic quotas had been set for the adventures and the characters, and the author were struggling to fill them. There are as many jokes as potholes on Raleigh's bumpy quest, and they have about the same effect.

The form of the book is picaresque, but the spirit is quite the opposite. There is none of the marvelous liberty that a Don Quixote or a Tom Jones give us, the sense of free flight among the decaying pillars of the day. The wackiness of "Handling Sin" is not freedom but a decaying pillar of its own. It is the musty liturgy of the Situation and the Gag. The characters rarely embody their eccentricities; they mostly perform them.

Raleigh, the central figure, receives a lot of the author's care and affection. He is meant to teach a lesson, this conscientious but tied-down man who accepts uncertainty, danger and chaos in order to find his father. But the cards are stacked. All of the dozens of characters in the book preach the same message of liberation to him. And at the end, we get the feeling of pious imposition; of a lesson not taught, but simply recited.

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