Handling Sin

A Novel

by Michael Malone

Paperback, 622 pages, Sourcebooks Inc, List Price: $16 | purchase

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Title
Handling Sin
Subtitle
A Novel
Author
Michael Malone

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Book Summary

Prosperous insurance agent, leading citizen, and forgetful husband and father Raleigh Whittier Hayes runs off to New Orleans in search of his aging and eccentric father, his murky family history, Confederate gold, and some peace and quiet.

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Excerpt: Handling Sin

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.