Truth or Consequences 

A fallen minister gets the red-carpet treatment

Plain Heathen Mischief

By Martin Clark

Knopf, 398 pp., $24.95

For a popular preacher, 42-year-old Joel King is in a hell of a mess. When Martin Clark's latest novel, Plain Heathen Mischief, opens, King's at his laptop working on his final sermon before the good people of Roanoke First Baptist, but it's too late, he reasons, to mention "sex or weakness or the girl." So he opts instead to deliver something simple and "pale," which he does, and no one's the wiser. What he sees, however, as his eyes scan the congregation, is red -- red in the sanctuary's standard carpeting and red in the tie that circles the neck of one church member in particular, Edmund Brooks. What King's also looking at is six months jail time. The charge: contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Translation: sex with a minor. King's plea: guilty as charged. Or is he?

The "girl" in question is Christina Agnes Norway Darden, a rich 17-year-old at the center of the crime and a piece of work any old time. One semester into her freshman year at the University of Virginia and already she's violated the school's honor code. A week after King's sorry sermon, Christy is high (or is it low?) on her combo of choice: speed, gin, Valium, champagne, and casual sex.

Fast-forward six months and King's in an unholier mess: He's served his time only to be served with divorce papers from his wife of 18 years and a whopping civil suit from Christy. The girl's new charges: "sexual assault" and "intentional infliction of emotional harm." Translation: rape. The price tag: two million in compensatory damages and three million in punitive damages.

Where is King to turn? He doesn't have a prayer, but he does keep the faith. He doesn't have a penny, but he does have a place to stay with his divorced sister in Missoula, Montana. He doesn't have an attorney, but he does get a ride out West from Brooks, who knows a dandy lawyer in Las Vegas named Sa'ad X. Sa'ad, who knows an insurance scam where everybody gets rich and nobody gets hurt. King won't hear of it, until King can't land a job, can't please his unscrupulous probation officer, and can't preach a thing to his Godless but law-abiding sister, Sophie, screwed herself by a philandering, radiologist ex-husband but blessed with an angelic 5-year-old son.

Next stop for King: rock bottom, until he gets a phone call from Brooks and undergoes a change of heart. That insurance scam? Count him in (so long as it's his sister and First Baptist that ultimately pocket King's cut). The job market? Piece of cake if you're willing to work for minimum wage and lie about your qualifications. The truth in general? Bendable if your goal is honorable and especially if a court deposition means nothing. Christy? A double-crosser with the best of them. And who's among the best? Not just Brooks and Sa'ad but King, of course, who goes from half-innocent martyr and self-deluding hypocrite to first-class confuser of right and wrong, in spite of the upstanding examples afforded by Sophie, an Alzheimered mother, a semi-prostitute, and a tough-talking but good-guy fly fisherman who doubles as a father figure. On the conduct of the FBI the jury's still out. The Montana state police? They're just doing their job.

Pointless to try explaining how a wife-beating dentist, a painting stolen from the Jewish Museum in New York City, and an old-school hard-liner on all things biblical figure into all this. But they do, according to the tricky mechanics of a well-paced, entertaining legal thriller and the hard lesson-building of a modern-day morality play.

Clark, a circuit court judge in Virginia, made his debut as author in 2000's rollicking hit, The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living. In Plain Heathen Mischief, it's one man's soul that's at stake and so what if the question of belief gets a bit overbearing. Leave it, rather, to a female lawyer in the story's closing pages to give King a good talking-to on the physics of cause and effect and the ethical blowback when right's mixed with wrong. Nothing shady about it. That bright red King sees is God's sure sign. Best to practice what you preach. n

Martin Clark reads from and signs copies of Plain Heathen Mischief at Off Square Books in Oxford on Tuesday, June 1, at 5 p.m. and at Burke's Book Store in Memphis on Friday, June 4, at 5 p.m.

LEONARD GILL

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