Saturday, May 2, 2009

Confidence Game; or A Post About A Book

I finished a book that's due back pretty soon, and also haven't been in the mood to scan photographs, so I'll take a short break from my "New York State Photos" series to talk about Plain Heathen Mischief by Martin Clark.

Plain Heathen Mischief opens on one of the worst days of Pastor Joel King's life. He's delivering a last sermon to his congregation before he begins to serve several months in jail for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, tasty 17-year old Christy. His wife, naturally, kicks him out of the house and serves him with divorce papers on the day of his release from jail. He heads west to live in his sister Sophie's basement and attempt to start all over, from absolute scratch.

Fate, or Edmund Brooks, intercedes. Edmund was one of Joel's few and staunchest supporters, and volunteers to drive him west to Montana upon his release, as he's going that way for "business". Turns out, Edmund's a con man. Despite his extravagant support of Joel's church, he's been scamming the system for most of his life. And he offers to cut Joel in. Joel resists temptation at first, but with an expensive divorce, a needling -- and needy -- sister and nephew, and a $5 million lawsuit from Tasty Christy looming, it's not long before he succumbs.

Anyone who collects stupid criminal stories (like I do) can spot a simple truth: it's easy to commit a crime. The challenge comes in getting away with it. Inevitably, things get rough, and Joel is a minister at heart, an intellectual who enjoys fishing and doesn't use swear words. These scenes reminded me at first of the part in Office Space where the three main characters are looking up money laundering in the dictionary.

But something about it became uncomfortable. Joel's a decent, likeable guy who's just trying to make everything work out. There's very little good in his life. His sister (in some of the weakest parts of the book) is constantly on his case, putting down his chosen vocation, riding him about the sex scandal he became embroiled in, angry that he can't contribute more around the house. And she's his closest ally. The book was trying to be both comical, and a serious examination of faith. The funny parts were pretty good, but Joel's overall situation is more sad than anything else. The parts about faith fall flat, as his sister Sophie is playing the "devil's advocate" but comes off as a two-dimensional character, existing merely to argue with him.

Still, the book was decent overall. Martin Clark made Tasty Christy a pretty intriguing character, one that I would have liked to see more of. Edmund's good, too, as a genial, religious con man. There was a good side plot about a case of domestic violence that Joel witnessed, and the story arc of Joel's attempted con was pretty good too, even with all the misery it contained. Martin Clark's got a few other books. This one wasn't perfect by any means, but good enough that I might give one of his others a try sometime.