Handling Sin: The Great American Novel

3517739957.jpgWhen I was in college, professors in the English Department at the University of Virginia would occasionally mention a certain novel as possibly the “great American novel”. I recall Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby being mentioned.

I have my own candidate – Handling Sin by Michael Malone. 

I had never heard of either the author or the novel before theologian Miroslav Volf made passing reference to the work in his book Free of Charge. Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (34):

“We live more or less like Raleigh Hays, the hero of Michael Malone’s novel Handling Sin. He was a decent citizen and a responsible family man who “obeyed the law and tried to do the right thing” and who thought he had secured for himself the decent middle-class life he led. He was wrong. Through a series of unlikely events, he had to be shaken into awareness that some “grace had given him for no earthly reason, like surprise presents, everything, absolutely everything, he’d thought he earned, and sustained by his own will, and deserved”. To come to believe that God has given us “absolutely everything” is to know what it means that, as creator, God is a giver.” 

The book is an epic, like Homer’s The Odyssey and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Like Odysseus and Frodo, Raleigh Hays, the unlikely hero, is sent on a quest, during which he passes through all of the classic heroic phases outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 

Raleigh receives a letter from his dying father, a disgraced Episcopal priest and would-be jazz trumpeter, requiring him to bring various items and people to New Orleans on a certain date and at a certain time. (The reader discovers, in a brilliant musical climax reuniting broken families in a jazz club called The Cave, that D-Day just happens to be Good Friday, and Raleigh’s journey just happens to be a pilgrimage, not just to his earthy estranged father, but to his estranged Heavenly Father as well.)
Raleigh heads off to New Orleans with his neighbor and best friend by default, Mingo Sheffield, who quickly becomes this Southern Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza. The questing twosome collect a truckful of fellow-travelers – Raleigh’s half-brother Gates, an aging Negro jazz sax player from Charleston, a aging Jewish escaped convict and self-taught bass player, and a homeless pregnant girl looking for her “husband”, a food vendor at the Omni– and find great adventures on Stone Mountain with drug runners, at a debutante’s coming out party in “Wild Oaks”, in a Hell’s Angels’ van, at a KKK rally, at a nunnery, to mention only a few of the places this 1980s band of brothers visit. 

Everyone we meet is broken and in need of healing, even though each one would deny the fact if asked. And everyone needs or denies forgiveness. Raleigh himself cannot forgive his father for the divorce which shattered one family and created another dysfunctional one.

As with Tolkien’s epic, the scenes in Handling Sin suggest Biblical tropes and types – echoes of the Prodigal Son, the Last Supper, the coming of New Jerusalem, among many others, spring to mind, even though the characters themselves and their world would never be labeled “Christian” in consciousness. And as with Tolkien, and as with anyone on a journey toward the Father, initiated by the Father, the act of journeying is itself transformative of the characters traveling. In the novel’s arc, God’s will  is done even among people who deny Him and mock Him. Grace is free and unmerited.

The Kingdom of God wafts into  the novel’s depiction of The Present Evil Age on the sound of a trumpet, restoring all who hear it:

“For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” 1 Corinthians 15:52

This is a guy book, I think. (If men still read novels, they should read this one.) The male heroes behave like males, often to the bewilderment of the female characters. Meanwhile, the heroes’ modern Penelopes do not just sit sewing at home. Mingo’s Vera explores her entrepreneurial options, while Raleigh’s wife, Aura, organizes Women for Peace, and launches a campaign for mayor.  I picked up the 656 page novel to read while flying on vacation. I couldn’t put it down. It is alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) profound without trying to be and hilarious deliberately. Chapter 33 ”What Raleigh Decided about Death” (the chapters have 18th century-like picaresque titles to announce the work’s 18th century structure) is a masterpiece. I sobbed throughout, unashamed and delighted.

 The author has said this about Handling Sin: 

 ” It portrays the spiritual journey of an insurance agent named Raleigh Hayes, who thinks he can insure life against loss and love, [and] who is mistakenly convinced that if you are responsible, reliable and a good citizen, you are without sin. Raleigh’s father, a defrocked minister, sends him on a crazy comic quest through the South and into his own past, in order for him to learn that he has the worst sins of all — pride, despair, contempt for his fellow humans — and to help him make his way home (in all senses)… [It] holds a special place for me because of the response of readers. Of all my books, it has been the most loved. Through the decades since I wrote it, I’ve received thousands of letters from readers who want me to know what the book has meant to them — given them laughter in a sad time, a means of reconciliation with an estranged loved one, a path to faith, a gift for an invalid, and so on. That it should play the role in the lives of readers that the quest serves for Raleigh in the novel itself (a journey to grace, to saying yes to life) has been a treasured gift to me as a writer.”

I pass this treasured gift of a novel on to whomever is reading this post.

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