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.
Brothers Karamazov, Frankenstein,
The Night of the
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
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
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 naïve 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.