Handling Sin

( 24 )


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 ...
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Handling Sin

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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.

This rollicking odyssey sweeps across the South, as a reluctant Quixote-like North Carolinian is forced on an uproarious quest by his eccentric runaway father. Malone is the acclaimed author of Foolscap.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Demonstrating a spirited grasp of the genre, Malone (Dingley Falls) has written a "romance novel'' in the original sense: a long tale of chivalrous heroes and extraordinary events. This madcap book bubbles with a frenzy from the first pages, an initially disconcerting pace that rarely allows the reader to catch a breath. With a wink to Cervantes and Dickensas well as the Marx Brothersthe narrative recounts the two-week odyssey of Raleigh Whittier Hayes, an upstanding citizen of Thermopylae, N.C., and Mingo Sheffield, his Sancho Panza. They encounter a bizarre cast of characters during their adventures, including Raleigh's criminal half-brother Gates, his prison buddy Weeper Berg, and aging jazzman Toutant Kingstree. Their quest, to unfairly simplify it, is to recapture Hayes's ailing father, who has escaped from the hospital with a young black woman, and who has left Raleigh a strange set of tasks to fulfill before a planned rendezvous in New Orleans. While tantalized by the promise of a secret treasure at the end of the journey, Hayes uncovers family secrets and Raleigh is granted a large measure of self-enlightenment. This is a highly refreshing tale in which Malone has managed to make the bizarre hilariously credible.
Library Journal
With braggadocio, Malone says in his acknowledgments that he expects a major movie company to buy Handling Sin. And his novel's scenario does seem designed to outdo Cannonball Run, Peyton Place and, at times, Porky's. It stars Raleigh W. Hayes, Baptist Church stalwart, Civitan regular, staid insurance agent, who miraculously metamorphoses overnight into Bruce Lee/Rocky/Rambo as he totes a pistol, battles the KKK and the other gangsters, poses as an FBI agent, and shades of Mickey Spillaine, has sensuous women swooning as he travels from Thermopylae, N.C. to New Orleans with excessively contrived adventures. This episodic novel panders with explicit sexual encounters, manipulated incidents/coincidences, and flagrant reliance on deus ex machina. But, alas, there is little reading pleasure in it. Glenn O. Carey, English Dept., Eastern Kentucky Univ., Richmond
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781570717567
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 9/28/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 622
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.74 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Malone is the literate and compassionate voice of the new American South. Critically acclaimed as one of the country's finest writers, his great gift for crafting remarkable and enduring comedies, as he did in Handling Sin, Dingley Falls and Foolscap, is matched only by his ability to deliver riveting suspense and mystery. Now, after a long absence, Michael Malone has returned to the scene of the crime. He has also come home to the South. He now lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with his wife, Maureen Quilligan, chair of the English department at Duke University.


Michael Malone is a novelist as well as the author of short stories, works of nonfiction, several plays, and daytime television drama. He was born in the Piedmont region of North Carolina and his distinctive Southern voice permeates his books, which he describes as "centered in the comedy of the shared communion among very diverse groups of people who are bound together by place and the past."

Michael's writing has been compared to Miguel De Cervantes, Charles Dickens and Henry Fielding. He is the recipient of The O. Henry Award for "Fast Love," the Edgar for "Red Clay" and an Emmy as head writer of ABC-TV's One Life to Live.

Michael lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with his wife, Maureen, whom he met while they were working toward their doctoral degrees at Harvard University.

Author biography courtesy of Sourcebooks, Inc.

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    1. Hometown:
      Hillsborough, North Carolina
    1. Education:
      B.A., Syracuse University; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University

Read an Excerpt

Like everyone else, Raleigh Hayes saw the world, and the people with whom he was obliged to share it, through the kaleidoscope of his own colored designs. As the years turned the viewer round and round, the bits of glass fell into new patterns, but the perspective remained limited to Raleigh's eye.

That there was a world that was not merely an elongation of his own limbs, that there were people in it who were not merely extensions of his own will, he had accepted, in frustration, before the age of two. He had learned by then that he did not make himself bounce merrily in air, nor was the woman's voice saying, "This is the way the ladies ride. Trot trot trot," his own. The fingers that made the church and steeple, made the white bear jump out of no place into view, tucked the shiny blanket around his shoulders, were not his own fingers, nor was the man's voice his that said, "Goodnight, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite, Little Fellow."

But if this knowledge gradually shrank him, so that he no longer painted pictures in which he towered not only over his stick-legged parents, but over the square house and the round spoked yellow sun; still, to the boy, the world beyond his ken stayed shadowy, and he as indifferent to it as it was to him. Outside Thermopylae there was nothing mapped on the globe but Cowstream to the east, the state capital to the west, the beach, beyond the beach a vague ocean, and, indistinctly, a shape called North Carolina surrounded by an incalculable shape called America, surrounded by, in the first years of his life, that "Overseas" where "We" were trying to win against "Them" before they took over the world and killed everyone in it.

As with everyone else, age did not entirely enlarge the young Raleigh's point of view. He realized there were a great many other people, up to their vague other business, but he assumed that the world around him was, simultaneously, unremittingly engrossed in Raleigh Hayes, while remaining utterly incapable of penetrating his secrets or understanding his unique personality. He believed both that his teachers noticed no other pupils but him, and that they never saw him down the row of yellow desks, reading "Joe Palooka" comics behind his math book, or nodding off to sleep in warm study periods, or staring heartsick at one of those girls whose rope-jumping usurpation of the sidewalk had once so annoyed him. Believed both that the whole fourth grade stared at him in the halls, and that none of them knew that his parents had divorced. Believed both that his mother had no life distinct from his, and that she had no inkling that he ever hid the evidence of his wet dreams at the bottom of the laundry hamper. Believed both that the entire town of Thermopylae was talking about the fact that he had bought a package of Trojan condoms at the drugstore, and that not a single person suspected what he might want to do with them. Like everyone else, Raleigh Hayes did not realize that most other people heard more and cared less than he imagined, just as he cared less about their secrets than they believed.

In his preoccupation with himself, Raleigh was certainly not unusual. Our hero was, however (particularly for a citizen of a small southern Piedmont town, out of which, or into which-as his aunt Victoria said-almost nobody had budged for two hundred years), rarer in the thoroughness of his indifference to what did not concern him, and even to what did. As the edges of his world moved back and the shadowy figures in it took on color and form, it was his habit to map and neatly label the typography, then explore no further. This disinterest he came to perceive as a virtue: he never gossiped, and would not willingly listen to the gossip of others.

All his life, Raleigh congratulated himself that it was not in his character to open mail not addressed to him, to open doors without knocking, to pry when it was none of his business. When his Hayes relatives began chortling together through long evenings of garbled gossip about each other or anecdotes about whatever they had managed to remember or make up about the Family Past ("Tell the one about when Papa went up with the barnstormer and the wing fell off. Tell the one about Aunt Mab and that jibber-jabber bigamist from Chicago"), Raleigh picked up an erector set or a stereo kit or a book. He, frankly, wasn't interested.

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Table of Contents



Chapter 1 In Which the Hero Is Introduced and Receives a Blow
Chapter 2 Which Treats of the Strange Message the Hero's Father Sent Him
Chapter 3 Of a Misunderstanding between Our Hero and His Neighbors
Chapter 4 How Raleigh Received His Name
Chapter 5 In Which Raleigh Blackmails an Enemy and Frightens the Kaiser
Chapter 6 Of the Advice Given Raleigh by His Only Sane Aunt
Chapter 7 In Which the Hero Commits a Crime
Chapter 8 And Is Nearly Arrested
Chapter 9 The First Sally Takes a Strange Turn
Chapter 10 How Raleigh Was Confirmed in His View of the World


Chapter 11 In Which Our Hero Attends a Surprise Party
Chapter 12 Raleigh Escapes
Chapter 13 Wherein Is Continued the Account of the Innumerable Troubles Endured by Our Hero
Chapter 14 Sudden Impulses Overwhelm Our Hero
Chapter 15 In Which Is Continued a Conversation Begun Thirty Years Ago
Chapter 16 In Which Raleigh and Mingo Fall into a Swamp
Chapter 17 Raleigh's Confession
Chapter 18 How Mingo Fared Alone at Myrtle Beach
Chapter 19 In Which the Hero Finds Himself at Sea
Chapter 20 The Great Adventure of the Bass Fiddle Case -
Chapter 21 In Which Is Described the Famous Barbecue at "Wild Oaks"
Chapter 22 Our Hero Succumbs to a Faded Beauty
Chapter 23 The Very Extraordinary Adventures Which Ensued at the Inn
Chapter 24 In Which Are Continued the Misfortunes That

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Reading Group Guide

Our Book Club Recommendation
Michael Malone’s Handling Sin is a comic novel whose depths are almost deceptively hidden by a happy-go-lucky exterior. Beneath the improbable story -- which concerns a respectable man who must pursue his elderly father on a humiliating wild-goose chase across the American South -- is a tale that encompasses complex issues such as racism, the claims of family, and the extent to which "respectability" is a virtue. Readers will laugh at the goings-on in Malone’s whimsical universe, but they may also see in them a reflection of the world they experience every day.

The theme of family in Handling Sin is sure to start many conversations. On the one hand, Malone is a master at portraying the uncomfortable comedy that results when a family contains more than a few eccentrics, and his hero, North Carolina insurance salesman Raleigh Hayes, must put up with an almost endless assortment of relatives who are decidedly not, by his middle-of-the-road standards, normal.

But as Hayes digs deeper into his family's history, he finds that what he’s been quick to judge is far from simple, and his attitudes about family raise issues of real significance, such as identity and race in the modern South, and the conflicts between compassion for others and the need to care for oneself. Raleigh's journey into his family history becomes multilayered and in turn will provoke many to think about the funny and serious sides of every family.

Book clubs may particularly enjoy sharing their ideas about the literary influences behind this almost epic-sized tall tale. The strange quest on which Raleigh finds himself borrows liberally from such masterpieces as Don Quixote and Tom Jones. Readers of John Kennedy Toole’s modern classic, A Confederacy of Dunces, will also spot many of the citizens of that nation among Malone’s southern eccentrics and hopeless cases. It’s almost impossible to exhaust the hunt for these literary connections in Malone's highly sophisticated novel; and while Handling Sin is too much fun to feel like work, reading group members will discover just how "heavy" the themes in this lighthearted book can become. (Bill Tipper)

Discussion Questions from the Publisher
1. At the beginning of the novel, on the Ides of March, Raleigh Hayes receives the following fortune in a Chinese cookie: "You will go completely to pieces by the end of the month." In what ways does the fortune come true, and in what ways does it not?

2. Aristotle has famously said, "Character is action." Characters will act in certain believable ways because of their established natures. How does the character of Raleigh Hayes lead to his response to the situations in which he finds himself? What qualities in his personality make Raleigh's father feel he needs to be sent on the journey he takes?

3. The first section of the novel is called "The Quest." Earley Hayes is sending his son on a quest for certain objects, but the quest is really to teach Raleigh what lessons about life and faith?

3. The objects Raleigh must "find" and bring to New Orleans (the gun, the bust, the Bible, Jubal himself, etc.) are all connected to the Hayes family past: How?

4. Why do you think that Earley set up such an elaborate journey for Raleigh instead of just coming out and telling him what he wanted him to do and why?

5. Raleigh's journey takes place during Lent and climaxes on Maundy Thursday (the gathering in New Orleans), Good Friday (when Earley dies), and Easter (when Earley is "buried"). How is this significant?

6. The author has said that characters often insist on following their own destinies. For example, he did not originally plan for Mingo to accompany Raleigh on his journey. How do you think Raleigh's trip would have been different if Mingo had not joined him?

7. It has been said there are really only two stories. In one, a stranger comes to town (as Mr. Darcy does in Pride and Prejudice); in the other, somebody leaves home, as Dorothy does in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Which is true of Handling Sin? Does the novel contain both elements?

8. Images and characters of a religious nature show up often in Handling Sin. One of the most important of these has to do with Earley's position as a former minister. Would you consider the Hayes family to be religious? In what other ways do the doctrines and rituals of Christianity play a central role in the novel?

9. The name of the novel is Handling Sin. Why? What does Earley want his son to learn by going into the world and handling sin there (becoming engaged in the clutter of life, accepting his own imperfections, and forgiving those of others)? What are some examples of how Raleigh's journey leads him to participate in the seven "sins" (lust, anger, etc.)?

10. There are seven chapters in the book that are meditations, taking Raleigh back to memories of his childhood. These chapters are named for the seven sacraments: Baptism ("How Raleigh Received His Name"), Confirmation ("How Raleigh Was Confirmed in His View of the World"), and so on. Talk about the purpose of these chapters.

11. In the memory chapters, there are two central figures (both women, both intellectual and moral "guides" to the young Raleigh). One is Flonnie Rogers, the family maid; one is Raleigh's aunt Victoria. Early in the novel, Raleigh turns to Victoria Hayes to be a kindred soul, a reliable ally amidst a madcap family. In what ways is Raleigh wrong about his picture of Victoria? What do they both learn?

12. Flonnie and Victoria have long kept a deep and dark family secret (that Victoria and Jubal Rogers had a child). Raleigh's journey is to unravel that secret. What does the discovery of "Billie" do to the characters in the novel?

13. Discuss the similarities and differences caused by race between Victoria Hayes and Flonnie Rogers. From where did they draw their strengths, and how did these strengths affect the courses of their lives, for better or for worse? How have Flonnie and Victoria's attitudes about life informed Raleigh's own?

14. Handling Sin has been compared to the great picaresque novels like Don Quixote and Tom Jones. It shares many qualities (and even narrative scenes) with the cherished comic epics on which it is modeled, yet it is set in the modern American South. In what ways does the novel mix elements of old and new narrative styles to make the story realistic and contemporary, yet fantastical and classic?

15. Race and religion are two of the major themes of Handling Sin. How do these issues interact? What do you think the novel is trying to say about the complicated histories of Southern communities?

16. Gates Hayes, Raleigh's free-spirited brother, is one of the novel's most engaging characters. Do you know anyone like Gates? Why are these people so engaging despite their irresponsibility?

17. The cover description refers to Mingo (the novel's Sancho Panza to Raleigh's Quixote) as Raleigh's "irrepressibly loyal friend." Would Raleigh agree with this description at the beginning of the novel? At the end? Is it possible for two people so different to truly be friends? How does Raleigh learn to appreciate Mingo's human gifts?

18. Through the course of Handling Sin, Raleigh begins to better understand his own family-in the beginning of the novel, he seems to be contemptuous of his Hayes relatives and to know little about what's going on with his wife, Aura (who's running for mayor), or his twin daughters, Caroline and Holly. How many different types of families does Raleigh come to have in Handling Sin? How do Raleigh's changing attitudes toward the Hayes family reflect real-life family relations?

19. How would you describe Raleigh and Aura's relationship? Does Aura's activist work disturb Raleigh as much as you would expect? Why do you think this is so?

20. Willa Cather said, "Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet." Michael Malone is a Southerner and his novels are almost always set in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, where he grew up. How is this Southernness manifested in Handling Sin?

21. The novel travels southward through very specific Southern cities (Charleston, Atlanta, Montgomery) on its way to New Orleans. What are some of the reasons for these choices?

22. Handling Sin is filled with hilarious and quirky characters. Besides the main characters, who was your favorite person in the novel? How did this supporting character affect the outcome of the story?

23. What do you think of the contents of the Civil War treasure chest? What treasure did Raleigh receive at the end of his journey?

24. How would you summarize the spiritual "message" of Handling Sin?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 24 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2003

    You will LOVE this book, & this is why...

    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.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2001

    Witty, Entertaining, Great Read, Great Story

    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.

    4 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2014

    Little slow at first,BUT TOTALLY WORTH GETTING THROUGH....

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 11, 2011

    Loved this book...until I got the Nook copy

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 10, 2010

    You'll read it more than once

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2014


    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2014

    I have read everything Michael Malone has written and enjoyed ev

    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.  

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2014

    Just too slapstick. Reminded me of a Chevy Chase or Steve Marti

    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.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 30, 2013

    Read this book years ago and thought it was the funniest, laugh

    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 3, 2011

    Highly Recommended - especially if you've ever lived in the South!

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2010

    Fun to read

    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.

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  • Posted August 21, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Too silly for me.

    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.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2005

    The best book I've ever read

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2003

    What a hoot!

    If you need to laugh...here's a winner. If you need to cry, try Pieces of A Poet, The Symphony of An Adolescent.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2002


    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!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2001

    Absolutely Wonderful

    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2001

    a book to live with while reading

    This is one of those books that you remember like a holiday.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 24 Customer Reviews

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