Of The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living, Martin Clark’s first novel, the New York Times Book Review wrote, “Like Nick Hornby in High Fidelity and Thomas McGuane in Nothing But Blue Skies, Clark has produced an oddly stirring portrait of a man in existential disarray.” Which–noted Malcolm Jones in Newsweek–“made me laugh so hard I fell off the sofa.”
Plain Heathen Mischief ups the existential ante, as Joel King, a defrocked Baptist minister, finds life even more bedeviling once he’s served six months for a career-ending crime he might not even have committed. Now his incommunicado wife wants a divorce, the teenage vixen of his disgrace is suing him for a cool $5 million, a fresh start in Montana offers no hope for ex-cons of any religious persuasion, and the refuge provided by his sister turns as nasty as his parole officer.
Talk about a crisis of faith. On the upside, a solicitous member of Joel’s former congregation invites him into a scam that could yield some desperately needed cash, and soon the down-on-his-luck preacher is involved with a flock of charming con men, crooked lawyers, and conniving youth.
In a feat of bravura storytelling, Martin Clark ranges from the cross to the double cross, from Virginia to Las Vegas, from jail cells to trout streams, as he follows his Job-like hero through dubious choices and high-dollar insurance hustles to a redemption that no reader could possibly predict. Wildly imaginative, at times comic, at times profoundly sobering, and even more audacious than his wonderfully idiosyncratic debut, Plain Heathen Mischief is a spiritual revelation of the first order.
Clark's second novel is a delight from start to finish, delivering resoundingly on the promise of his well-received The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living. The adventure begins when the Rev. Joel King is released from jail after a six-month sentence for the statutory rape of now-18-year-old gold digger Christy Darden. The question of whether Joel is actually guilty of the crime to which he confessed persists, but he keeps his lips sealed as he and parishioner Edmund Brooks drive from Roanoke, Va., to Missoula, Wyo., to be with Joel's recently single sister Sophie and his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother. It turns out the irascible Edmund is into insurance fraud, among other things, and, with Las Vegas attorney Sa'ad X. Sa'ad, is capable of unimaginable deceit and criminal activity. Facing divorce, jobless and desperate, Joel gets wrapped up in their latest scheme and, before he knows it, the Feds, a corrupt probation officer, the state police and a detective are hot on his trail. Clark also throws in issues of spousal abuse, parental responsibility, and justice, to name but a few. Joel perpetually wrestles with issues of faith, but never in a way that is pedantic or overbearing. There is barely a false note in this comic novel of hope and redemption. Minor characters are rich and multilayered, and the dialogue is priceless ("This is some crazy shit, like the Marx Brothers or I Love Lucy when a person misunderstands one teeny fact and everything snowballs and builds on the wrong idea"). All in all, this is one of the year's most entertaining surprises. Fans of Elmore Leonard's meatier novels will not be disappointed.