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Saturday, June 19th, 2004


Plain Heathen Mischief

by Martin Clark

A review by Steven Fidel

How does man survive when he loses God? This is a conundrum that has inspired some fairly ripping Judeo-Christian mythology ever since Adam got booted from the garden for nibbling Eve's apples. The Book of Job, Dr. Faustus, The Brothers Karamazov, Frankenstein, The Night of the Iguana, Steppenwolf, even, have all taken advantage of the fear of losing God. Plain Heathen Mischief postulates, however, that the absence of God in one's life may not be without humorous moments.

After being convicted for a sexual dalliance with a seventeen-year-old that may or may not have occurred, the Rev. Joel King, de-frocked southern Baptist minister, has been released from county jail: "a local cage," Clark waxes, "filled with fools, losers, drunks, yahoos and riffraff, all chatter and threat, punk wannabes who will end up spending most of their lives at mom's apartment or grandma's rundown trailer." While waiting out his incarceration, Joel lost his wife, his home, his position in society, his church, and his flock. The jury remains out on whether or not Joel has truly lost his god. Joel, at least, believes God still guides his life, which sets in motion a passel of tragi-comic events.

Joel, adrift in the heathen wilderness, stumbles in unfamiliar territory. But as Mother Superior said in The Sound of Music, "whenever God closes a door, he opens a window." Ex-reverend King is just nave enough to jump through that window, finding himself, indeed, on the other side of the looking glass, where he meets a new savior in the form of one Edmund Brooks.

Edmund Brooks is a likeable wag — a friendly insurance scammer and donut thief. Edmund offers to go out of his way to drive Joel to bucolic Montana where his sister has agreed to look after her jailbird brother. Through Edmund, Joel meets Sa'ad X (Las Vegas lawyer and high-end jewel fence), but not before the two of them become embroiled in Joel's first insurance fraud. Joel, of course, is oblivious to both Edmund's and Sa'ad's machinations before he's in too thick to extricate himself. And while Joel is aware of the sticky wicket he's in, he uses the rationale that by cheating an insurance company (one of America's more immoral industries, we are reminded on numerous occasions), he may add deserved cash to the coffers of his former church, which has suffered because of his alleged sins of the flesh.

Like good Friar Tuck who helped rob the rich to give to the poor, Joel twists his Christian morality into a form where his actions are moral because he's using the bad guys to benefit the good guys. Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.

Without revealing more of the story, it suffices to say that Plain Heathen Mischief is one page-turning romp. Like Gilgamesh in his search for God, Joel, through one bungled scheme after another, discovers a richer version of a god whose shadow inhabits all things — things we may not wish to touch, but which, nevertheless, contain that divine spark. While the plot might lend itself to comfortable black-and-white, good-and-evil portraits, Clark never slides down that slippery slope. His characters are fully realized, alternately displaying their warts and their haloes, sometime even on the same day.

This is such a smart read, one wishes that the ideologues who have plunged the world into such extreme chaos over the last three years, might read a book like Plain Heathen Mischief and reflect on the folly of polemics. Because, as Joel King learns, good, evil, and all the grey areas in between adopt more forms than the number of stars that sparkle in the firmament.

Plain Heathen Mischief is only Clark's second novel, but what a second novel! As a Southerner, he has absorbed a linguistic heritage that sounds nearly baroque to the plain speaking Northern ear. It's hard to say whether everyone gets what they deserve by novel's end, because it's not always clear what exactly they do deserve. And there's an overriding feeling that no matter how heavy the subject, it's delivered with a grin and a wink. Because Martin Clark is a little bit of Richard Russo crossed with a lot of Mark Twain, a Horatian satirist of complexity, wit, and genuine feeling. Plain Heathen Mischief is without doubt a real work of art, at once entertaining, moral, poignant, and, possibly most important, relevant.

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