Handling Sinby Michael Malone
On the Ides of March, our hero, Raleigh Whittier Hayes (forgetful husband, baffled father, prosperous insurance agent, and leading citizen of Thermopylae, North Carolina), learns that his father has discharged himself from the hospital, taken all his money out of the bank and, with a young black female mental patient, vanished in a yellow Cadillac convertible. Left… See more details below
On the Ides of March, our hero, Raleigh Whittier Hayes (forgetful husband, baffled father, prosperous insurance agent, and leading citizen of Thermopylae, North Carolina), learns that his father has discharged himself from the hospital, taken all his money out of the bank and, with a young black female mental patient, vanished in a yellow Cadillac convertible. Left behind is a mysterious list of seven outrageous tasks that Raleigh must perform in order to rescue his father and his inheritance.
And so Raleigh and fat Mingo Sheffield (his irrepressibly loyal friend) set off on an uproarious contemporary treasure hunt through a landscape of unforgettable characters, falling into adventures worthy of Tom Jones and Huck Finn. A moving parable of human love and redemption, Handling Sin is Michael Malone's comic masterpiece.
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By Michael Malone
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Michael Malone
All rights reserved.
In Which the Hero Is Introduced and Receives a Blow
On the ides of March, in his forty-fifth year, the neutral if not cooperative world turned on Mr. Raleigh W. Hayes as sharply as if it had stabbed him with a knife. Like Caesar, Mr. Hayes was surprised by the blow, and responded sarcastically. Within a week his eyes were saying narrowly to everything they saw, Et tu, Brute? The world looked right back at the life insurance salesman; either blinked or winked, and spun backward on an antipodean whim, flinging him off with a shrug. This outrage happened first in his little hometown, which was Thermopylae, North Carolina, and, soon thereafter, all over the South, where Mr. Hayes was forced to wander to save his inheritance from a father who'd, again, run ostentatiously berserk.
Of course, there were warnings. Like Caesar, Hayes ignored them. A lunatic had gotten into the fortune cookies at the Lotus House, the only Chinese restaurant in town. Suddenly, along with their checks, patrons began receiving, coiled like paper snakes, harsh predictions or dreadful instructions: "You will die of cancer." "Someone close will betray you." "Sell all your stocks at once!" Either the manufacturer had unwittingly hired a sadistic sloganeer, or here in the Lotus House kitchen the Shionos themselves (ingrates despite decades of Thermopylae's hospitality) were tweezering out the old bland fortunes and slipping inside the cookies these warped prognostications. The restaurateurs (who were not Chinese anyhow, but Japanese) were already suspected of holding a grudge about the war, of catching stray cats and serving them to unknowledgeable palates as Cantonese chicken, of meaning by "C. Chow Mein" on their menus, "Cat."
The Thermopylae Civitans met at the Lotus House anyhow, because it served liquor without resembling a bar, and the Civitans didn't think of themselves as the sort of people who would eat lunch in a bar. As Raleigh Hayes did not drink, and as he found disturbing the mingling of foods customary in Asian cuisine — so many vegetables, meats, and noodles heaped communally together violated his sense of privacy — he never would have eaten a meal in the Lotus House had he not been a member of the Civitans Fund Drive Committee. Had he not reached for a fortune cookie to give his hand something to do other than twitch to choke to death the committee chairman for wasting his time, Hayes never would have pulled from the shell of stale pastry the strip of fortune that read, "You will go completely to pieces by the end of the month." Obviously, nothing could be more preposterous. Mr. Hayes knew himself to be an irrevocably sane man; nor was this conclusion reached in a vacuum: he had a great many blood relations who were not in one piece, and he could see the difference. Folding the nonsensical strip, he put it absentmindedly in his pocket.
Next to Hayes, less imperturbable, fat Mingo Sheffield curled up his paper fortune and set it on fire with his cigarette without telling the other Civitans what it said. It said, "Your spouse is having an affair with your best friend. Solly."
"Who's suh ... Solly?" asked Sheffield as nonchalantly as he could.
Nemours Kettell, the chairman and a veteran, took it on himself to explain. "It's Jap for sorry." He picked at a sharp fragment of cookie stuck in his receding gums, a public display of his mouth that irritated Hayes, who also disliked Kettell for abbreviating words, although he'd never been able to decide why this verbal habit so incensed him. Kettell shook his own fortune. "Somebody's pulling our you-knows here. You may think it's funny, Wayne." Wayne Sparks was Kettell's son-in-law across the table, now giggling because he'd just read his slip, "See a doctor. You have the clap," and he was thinking about making a joke in mimicry of his wife's father, by saying "clap" was Oriental for "crap." On the other hand, it was quite possible he did have a venereal disease, so he rolled the paper into a spitball and stuck it under his plate like gum. Kettell was still nodding. "But I don't happen to think there's a lot to ha-ha about when I see this kind of anti-American blasphemy." He passed his fortune around the table. It said, "Jesus is a bag lady. He saves trash." Nobody thought it was funny but Wayne.
Nemours Kettell now banged his fork on the cymbal-shaped cover over the last of the pepper steak. "I want some info on this cookie business. This could be like pins in the Snickers bars, remember that? I hate to believe the way the world's turning to dirt, poisoning aspirins and shooting at the President over some girl you never even met."
"What the hell did we drop the bomb for, really, you know, if we have to put up with this kind of Jap backtalk?" threw in Wayne facetiously. A neo-hippie who'd had the bad luck not to be born until the sixties were over, he was in line to inherit Kettell Concrete Company, and liked to take these risks with his future.
Raleigh Hayes kept calm by polishing his unused knife with his napkin while Kettell rapped on the dish cover until finally the tiny Shiono grandmother looked up from her Japanese newspaper. Like a pigeon through snow, she shuffled across the empty room of white tablecloths toward them. When the Civitans waved their fortunes at her, she bowed with a smile; when they pointed at the messages, she smiled and pointed at her newspaper.
"Doesn't speak the lingo," suggested Kettell's son-in-law.
Mrs. Shiono smiled. "Check? Quit it, Claude."
"Credit card," Kettell translated. "Look here, Miz Showno, you want our business, you won't ask us to come in here and read this kind of garbage." He snapped a cookie in two; nothing was in it.
"Oh, for God's sake," said Hayes who had two prospective clients to see on the way back to his office. But not until Nemours Kettell was satisfied personally by the Shiono grandson, Butch, that they would complain to their fortune-cookie supplier in Newport News, would he let the Civitans adjourn. They had already voted to host a fish fry in June and donate the proceeds to diabetes research. That's what they'd voted to do for the last ten years. Kettell's wife had diabetes. So did most of Raleigh Hayes's relatives; if it weren't for his sensible diet, no doubt he'd have it himself.
Outside their restaurant, the Shionos had grown a dogwood tree in a box on the sidewalk. Raleigh Hayes, preoccupied, started to snap off a blossom. He was stopped by a sweat coming all the way back from Sunday school, where he'd been taught it was against the law to mutilate a dogwood because Christ had died on a dogwood cross and the rust on the petal tips was His blood. The flower dangled bent, and Hayes propped it up on a neighboring branch. "Back to work, Mingo," he told his next-door neighbor.
"What for?" Mingo Sheffield sighed at Thermopylae, the rolls of his neck billowing out above his yellow short-sleeved button-down shirt. "I tell you what. Downtown is starting to look like that old movie, On the Beach. Did you see it on TV last night? The whole world was dead from fallout, not a soul on the streets. They thought somebody survived, but it was just a Coca-Cola bottle."
"Gas has dropped," said Hayes. "That's why."
"Just a Coca-Cola bottle clinking on a telegraph key."
"Everybody's back on the beltway headed for the mall again."
Sheffield looked forlornly across Bath Street at the stone facade of Knox-Bury's Clothing Store, whose menswear manager he was. "They're sure not here," he said.
"How's Vera doing?" asked Hayes by way of initiating his departure.
Pouches of flesh slid up over Mingo's eyes as he recalled the fortune cookie's warning about his wife Vera's being an adulteress. It occurred to him that Raleigh Hayes was his best friend. At least — except for Vera — he didn't have any other close friends, and hadn't had since high school, and hadn't had very many then, being fat, timid, and furtive. "What do you mean?" he asked with a hard look. He certainly didn't want to find out that his cookie had told the truth and that he had lost his wife, and his only friend, the only neighbor who had accepted his fortieth-birthday dinner invitation, the next-door neighbor who could be relied upon to recharge a battery, explain a 1040 form, call the police if robbers started packing up his house.
"How's she doing?" Hayes repeated.
"What do you mu ... mu ... mean, doing?" Sheffield stalled, hanging on to innocence.
Hayes grew impatient. "What do you mean, what do I mean?"
"You mean her diet?"
"She's dieting?" Hayes didn't even much like Vera Sheffield. She had too many things going on at once; she was a religious maniac and a lewd joker at the same time. She was altogether gluttonous. She was almost as fat as Mingo, as fat as Hayes's dead relatives, and not-yet-dead relatives, most of whom had ballooned off the top of his Mutual Life healthy-weight charts. She was a fat, born-again loudmouth.
"She's lost forty-two pounds," Sheffield was saying.
"She had her teeth wired together. You know how they do."
Mingo Sheffield relaxed with a heave at the sight of his neighbor's unmistakable amazement. Surely, if Raleigh and Vera were having an affair, it wouldn't have escaped his notice that her mouth was wired shut and forty pounds of her were missing. Now, Mingo said proudly, "It was a last resort and my hat's off to her, that's for sure. She's been through all getout." Sheffield never dieted himself, but slenderized vicariously through his wife's suffering. She'd been losing weight for a quarter of a century, but always with a backlash. Two years ago she'd had Mingo put a lock and chain on the refrigerator door, but then had gone crazy and sawed it off while he was out at Chip 'n Putt. She'd even eaten the bread that had turned blue. Last year, after not missing a single Gloria Stevens exercise class for eight months, she'd tried for first prize in the Civitans' Christmas fruitcake fund-raiser by buying the ones she couldn't sell and eating them herself. "She's doing it for Jesus," explained her husband. "Forty-two pounds!"
"Well, I hope He appreciates it," Hayes offered in parting.
"She's not in such a hot mood," Sheffield called after him, and then walked across the silent street to look at the family of picnicking mannequins he had himself arranged in Knox-Bury's display window. Sharp-creased summer clothes stuck out stiffly from their arms and legs, and new shoes hung off their toeless feet. The mannequin mother was taking a rubber pie from an ice chest and the mannequin father was looking fixedly at his tennis racket as if he were wondering why he'd brought it along on a picnic when there were no courts in sight and nobody to play with. Lonesomeness fell on Mingo Sheffield; there wouldn't be a soul to talk to in the empty store, and at home his wife's teeth were wired together. He felt like climbing in the display window and sitting with the mannequins on the plastic grass and staring with them into the aluminum-foil lake on whose surface the boy mannequin's fishing line lay tangled, as if he'd tossed it onto an ice lake without bothering to drill a hole. Mingo looked back down the sidewalk but Raleigh Hayes had disappeared. His friend was a fast walker, thought the pensive floor manager; a man with somewhere to go.
Raleigh Hayes always walked fast, even if he was only walking to the bathroom, even if he was only walking along the beach. He hurried because forty-five years had already gotten away from him, because life was always two uncatchable steps in front of him, running away like a burglar with satchels full of all the things that should have belonged to Raleigh Hayes — like money, position, a home in which nothing was unrepaired, and, in general, a future, and, mostly, his just desserts. What our hero didn't know as he hurried back to business was that the burglar was just now getting ready to wheel around and scare him to death by flinging the satchels at his head. That, at any rate, was his father's plan, if a man like his father could be said to have formulated anything that could reasonably call itself a plan, which Raleigh would have denied.
On the surface, Raleigh Whittier Hayes looked like his father, (ex) Reverend Earley Hayes, but the resemblance hadn't soaked in. For that, the son was grateful. Indeed, he resented even the physical likeness. The blueness of Raleigh's eyes, the high color of his cheek, the corkiness of his sand-colored hair and soft loose fullness of his mouth had, all his life, led people (even those who hadn't known the father) to expect of the son a Rabelaisian insouciance he neither possessed nor approved. He was continually a disappointment to those who assumed he would live up to his looks, and they were a disappointment to him. He'd done what he could to bring his surface into conformity with what was inside: he'd put his eyes behind glasses, fretted away a little bit of his hair, and tightened his mouth. Raleigh'd grown tall and lean and pale, so that he'd come to look like Earley Hayes stretched on the rack and, consequently, bitter in the face.
What was on the inside of the son belonged to the mother, second of Earley's three (so far) wives, and the only one with any money. A great deal of money (well, not a great deal, but enough for a reasonable man), money that Raleigh Hayes was to inherit as soon as his father died, which should have happened a long time ago. Not that Raleigh wanted it to happen at all. In fact, he and his single sane aunt had spent the past six months persuading the seventy-year-old gadabout to enter the local hospital for the tests he was now having for his blackout spells. It was just that Hayeses rarely lived into their seventies. Most of the foolhardy gene pool had died laughing of one carelessly aggravated congenital malady or another, years and years younger than Earley Hayes was now. Somehow, Earley kept bouncing up and down on the tip of the diving board without ever slipping in. His son, Raleigh, considered himself fortunate that he'd been bequeathed only the father's looks, for the majority of those with any Hayes blood shared a dangerously blithe character as well, and they'd horsed around as if life were child's play until they'd toppled (uninsured) into early graves.
As a life insurance agent, Raleigh was appalled by the fact that he'd never been able to sell his relatives a single policy. They were too cavalier to insure themselves and too sentimentally superstitious to insure anyone else. But they were glad to let him take out his own small policies on them, although it seemed to them a terribly dull use of money. Because of their calamitous genealogy, the premiums were exorbitant. He sank the returns into land; it lasted longer than the creatures who lay under it. He now owned two beach houses near Wilmington, and he rented them out to vacationers, and lent them to his relatives. They loved the beach.
* * *
On the twelfth floor of the Forbes Building at the Crossways (as the center of downtown Thermopylae was called), Raleigh Hayes overlooked his reflection in the glass door that bore his name and title. INSURANCE AGENT, MUTUAL LIFE. The phone was ringing while he was opening the door. He couldn't imagine why Bonnie Ellen didn't answer it. She was his new secretary, and the reason she didn't answer the phone was she was at home arguing with her husband about whether or not they should move to California. But Hayes wasn't to find out why Bonnie Ellen had let the phone keep ringing until much later, because when Chief Hood came to his house to ask him if he'd killed her, he'd already left town.
Raleigh snatched up his own receiver and announced himself.
"It's me," said his wife, out of breath. Her name was Aura, and as a result, her sensible, if somewhat cryptic, remarks struck others as having a mystical elusiveness.
"What's the matter?"
"Your daddy's gone!"
"He's dead. Dear God."
But Aura blew a puff of air into the phone. "Oh, Raleigh, no. He ran off from the hospital before they could finish his heart tests. When they brought in his lunch tray, there was nothing on his bed but his suitcase! Honey, I hate to say I told you so." She didn't explain what she had told him, but it certainly hadn't been that his father was going to skip out of the hospital, undetected, and vanish.
Hayes sat down without even looking for his chair. His tailbone hit the corner of the armrest and shot pain up his spine like a dart. "Why wasn't I informed?" he asked, as if he were already talking to the hospital officials, which, in his mind, he was. "Why has all this time been lost?"
Excerpted from Handling Sin by Michael Malone. Copyright © 2010 Michael Malone. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Michael Malone is the author of ten novels, a collection of short stories, and two works of nonfiction. Educated at Carolina and at Harvard, he is now a professor in Theater Studies at Duke University. Among his prizes are the Edgar, the O. Henry, the Writers Guild Award, and the Emmy. He lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with his wife.
Michael Malone is the author of ten novels, a collection of short stories and two works of nonfiction. Educated at Carolina and at Harvard, he is now a professor in Theater Studies at Duke University. Among his prizes are the Edgar, the O. Henry, the Writers Guild Award, and the Emmy. He lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with his wife.
- Hillsborough, North Carolina
- Place of Birth:
- Durham, North Carolina
- B.A., Syracuse University; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University
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I will admit, when I began this selection, I had my doubts. It took me well into the first 80 pages or so to get into the book, but I am glad that I stuck with it. This is the only book that has ever made me laugh out loud! It is a fascinating tale, and once it gets rolling, it keeps you on your toes. Magnificent twists and lovable characters, I would recommend this to anyone wanting a good book that will leave them happily fulfilled.
I happened upon this book in 1993, while grazing in the public library. Since then, I have purchased at least 5 copies as gifts for friends and family. A poignant twist on the Don Quixote fullfillment tale, the novel is rife with memorable characters we can all name from our own lives, very amusing plot turns, not to mention the underlying themes of self-discovery and redemption.
I loved this book. The characters are so varied and the situations our clueless hero finds himself in are hysterical. The aloof man you meet in the beginning becomes transformed through discovering family secrets and an identity changing journey that will leave you laughing out loud at times. It was my favorite read of the year...really.
Sadly, a book that I repeatedly read in print has been altered for the Nook. Why is this? I haven't seen this before. It seems to be mostly current-event references. For example, when Caroline gives her Walkman to Raleigh, she is now listening to Sting (in the print copy it is Toto). It is explained that the only reason Aura went on a date with Raleigh is because 'he asked her an interesting question about herself.' (In the book, 'he was the only GI she'd met who hadn't claimed to be a bunkmate of Elvis Presley.') My print copy is a recent reprinting, with the same cover as is shown on this Nook book... However, this is still a great book. If you haven't read it, you'd probably like either copy.
I first read this book in my early twenties, and while I thought it was funny and the characters charming, I really didn't 'get it'. I couldn't relate to the main character or many others. Having re-read it again in my early 40's and being closer in age to the main character, I know GET how the events of his past and present are bringing him to the brink of finally finding out who he is. As a Phoenix rising from the ashes, the main character is someone we can all relate to, and the journey he takes isn't unlike one many of us have been on - albeit a bit crazier than what ours might be like. I've read many of Malone's other works, but this one continues to be my favorite.
I loved this book! I started it just because it seemed different and ended up finding a new favorite author. Michael Malone's style of writing is very comfortable, like a conversation. His characters are well-formed, seem familiar. and are so very easy to identify with throughout the book. I found myself saying silently, "Yes, I have thought exactly that before!" And at other times, recognizing the same type of people we all know and have met. What a great way to realize how we all get drawn into our plans for life and forget to actually live and enjoy it. Life isn't a checklist. I looked forward to having time to get back to the book and find out what happens next. I absolutely will read his other books.
I have read everything Michael Malone has written and enjoyed everyone. I laugh out loud, I nod my head and sometimes I cry. Even my husband likes them. I heard him speak once, bought one book a nd was hooked. Recommended "The Last Noel" to book club, it remains one our favorites.
Read this book years ago and thought it was the funniest, laugh out loud book I had ever read. Lent it to someone and it never came back. So glad it is out in ebook so I can add it to my library and re read it.
Mr. Malone has a unique talent for bringing to print every neighbor, friend or relative that I've ever known in the South! His characters are developed deftly and I feel within a paragraph or two that I know them well (probably because of the similarities to people I've known). I quite enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.
This book kept me laughing. I read it mostly at night before bed, so it took a few weeks to read. I loved the book and the characters.
I stumbled upon this madcap novel at a used book sale. I've read it so many times since, the front cover has fallen off and the back cover is threatening to do the same. At first reading, I thought Handling Sin was the funniest book I ever read. But after I stopped laughing my rear off, I realized there's much more to the book. Undergirding all the crazy characters and insane adventures is a very positive message about life, love, and family. It's one of those rare books that you don't want to end. I can't recommend it enough.
If you need to laugh...here's a winner. If you need to cry, try Pieces of A Poet, The Symphony of An Adolescent.
HANDLING SIN is one of those rare laugh-out-loud books. While it has some poignant moments, most of the book is so funny with its down-to-earth dialogue and wacky characters. I will highly recommend this one!
This book ranks as one of my all time favorites. I first bought it in 1986 and am now ordering it for a friend's birthday. It's quirky, very touching, utterly ridiculous at times. It is so hard to find a book that tells a lot about people and yet does it with wild humor. It's an absolute treat.
This is one of those books that you remember like a holiday.
Just too slapstick. Reminded me of a Chevy Chase or Steve Martin "roadtrip" movie. The author could have pared it down by 300 pages and still got the point across.
I was not wild about this book. I read half of it and it got to be too much of the same antics, different town, more preposterous characters. I really wanted to like it and just couldn't go on. I very rarely give up on a book. Just couldn't do this one.