Mystery of faith underlies Michael Malone's writings

September 17, 2009

Michael Malone mainly writes big, fat books. That's the good news.

There is no bad news.

Malone has written two works of nonfiction, a short story collection, a series of mysteries and eight novels. Granted, some are slim and trim, like Red Clay, Blue Cadillac, collected short stories about dangerous Southern women (Charmaine is a pip). But most of his books do not fit easily in a beach bag, nor are most fit to read in any room from which laughter could get you booted.

His mysteries (he's working on the fourth in the Justin and Cuddy series) are embroidered with character and community, and his eight novels about big and small characters in small towns like Dingley Falls, Connecticut, and Hillston, North Carolina, often contain at least a spaghettini of mystery. And always they present the mystery of faith. Belief runs through his books the way it runs through him – joyfully, surprisingly, utterly. Malone and his wife, Maureen Quilligan, worship at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

"People are shocked when they hear I am a churchgoer and a person of faith," Malone, 65, said in a telephone interview. "They express disbelief the same way a classmate at Harvard did in graduate school when he realized I was smart and a liberal: ‘But you're from the South!'"

A subtle influence

The religion in Malone's novels rests easy, more candle than neon. It's possible to miss it and still think his books are My-T-Fine puddings.

"Readers may not speak the language of faith," Malone said, "but when one tells me she bought Handling Sin for a sister she hadn't spoken to in years, or when another says he passed The Last Noel to a sick friend, they've caught the faith in them without realizing it." Malone ends Dingley Falls at the Communion rail, he collars a couple of Episcopal priests in Foolscap and Time's Witness, and he starts Handling Sin on the secular Ides of March but ends it on Easter.

I laughed for the first 500 pages of Handling Sin, as befits Malone's ascription to Dingley Falls: "Song's a good prayer. So is laughter." I cried for the last 100 pages as if at my baptism. Published in 1986, Handling Sin follows the theme of a journey to wisdom, with itinerary laid out for a son by his concerned father, a lapsed Episcopal priest. Malone arranges the novel like a pilgrimage ("The Call," "The Quest," "The Return"), and the last week of the journey is the Holy one.

Malone writes like Twain and Dickens, his twin stars, and like Larry McMurtry and Eudora Welty. Like the head writer he once was for the soap opera One Life to Live, Malone writes palpable, visual scenes. Oddly, none of his novels has become a movie. Many, like Time's Witness, have been optioned, a few have been wrought into scripts, but something always has gone wrong, Malone said.

Malone also writes for the ear, with dialogue perfect for all colors and classes and descriptions precise (a lab tech "slowly winds the tape measure like reeling in a fish he knows is too little"). His characters – Raleigh, Cuddy, Early and Martha Mitchell the poodle, among them – have distinction if not always dignity. Malone tucks his folks into towns, considers their social, sexual, political and theological situations, and loops loose ends like wired ribbon.

All this takes time and space, so, mostly, he writes big, fat books. That's the good news.

A selected bibliography of Malone's novels

Dingley Falls (1980) 
Uncivil Seasons (1983) 
Handling Sin (1986) 
Time's Witness (1989) 
Foolscap (1991) 
First Lady (2001) 
The Last Noel (2003) 
The Killing Club (2005)
The Four Corners of the Sky (2009)



Mystery, blessings and fun intersect in Four Corners

By Michael Malone
Sourcebooks Landmark, 544 pp., $24.99

Reading Michael Malone's latest novel, The Four Corners of the Sky, recalls happy hours inhaling other good stories.

Here's an echo of Eudora Welty, there a fillip from Fannie Flagg and, throughout, symbolic names a la Dickens. In the end, however, The Four Corners of the Sky is all Malone – a mystery, complex, spirited, silly and blessed.

She was born on the 4th of July, this heroine. She was named Anne Samantha Peregrine, but she added the surname of her foster father, Clark Goode, first-named for a movie star. Clark and her aunt Sam raised Annie after her father, a con artist, left her at Pilgrim's Rest, the family home, on her 7th birthday.

That's all prologue. This book seems to begin on July 4, 2001, when Annie, a pilot in the U.S. Navy, races home for her 26th birthday. From beginning to end, Annie looks for her true mother (surely not Claudette Colbert, as recorded on her birth certificate), but she also searches for completion, for truth, for love. Does she find them in her peacocky, soon-to-be ex-husband or in the detective named Hart, who's after her father, who's after the golden statue of Mary the Mother? Does she find her father in St. Louis or in Havana with Rafael, his loyal cellmate?

The Four Corners of the Sky answers all these questions – with groans (Goode's bad puns), brio (the detective's ex- is all bitch, no pups), humor (one seriously funny funeral) and the repeating, concentric circles of a good story. Malone's mystery is convoluted, like life, and his scenes are visual, like movies.

He crafts individual phrases ("locally famous bosom") as carefully as he organizes the whole book.

The Four Corners of the Sky is a pilgrimage, a peregrination. It is all pleasure.

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