By Michael Dirda
Thursday, May 28, 2009
THE FOUR CORNERS OF THE SKY
By Michael Malone
Sourcebooks Landmark. 544 pp. $24.99
This is a fabulously entertaining novel. It's probably a trifle too long, the plot contains a number of improbabilities and it's easy enough to guess at least a couple of the revelations toward the book's end. But you know what? None of this matters. Michael Malone's prose -- as smooth as a con man's patter -- hooks you on the first page, and you're not going anywhere after that, except to your favorite reading chair or backyard hammock or vacation beach blanket. Malone possesses the only gift -- according to Vladimir Nabokov -- that a writer really needs: Shamantsvo, the ability to cast a spell, to enchant.
Malone does this mainly through his characters, every one of whom you enjoy spending time with, even the crooks. Especially the crooks. Take, for instance, the elusive Jack Peregrine, a grifter with style and chutzpah to spare. Imagine Robert Redford in "The Sting" -- but with Paul Newman's smarts. The hard-edged mistress of a mobster sums up Jack in a sentence: "He was the best dancer I ever met." Trying to explain Jack to his daughter, one of his confederates insists that the man is actually a "performance artist":
"He would make bets how long he could live like a king without touching a cent. No bad plastic or bouncing checks either, though nobody could pass a check like your dad. He'd go weeks without a penny. Nicest restaurants in town, crowded, he'd slip in, dine for free, slip out. Never paid a cent. Best hotel, find an empty suite, put on his tux, drift down to the ballrooms, join weddings, bar mitzvahs, sit at their tables, always the life of the party, never saw the people before or since, but enjoyed their hospitality so much they loved him. You think your father did it to save a penny? He did it for art."
In the book's prologue, Jack, on the run, is forced to abandon his 7-year-old daughter, Annie, at his old family home in North Carolina. As he drives off, he tells her that she's a flier and to look in the barn for her birthday present. There the little girl discovers an old Piper Warrior airplane with the words "King of the Sky" written on the fuselage.
Flash forward 19 years to the summer of 2001. Annie is now a Navy combat pilot, having been first in her class at Annapolis. She's smart, beautiful and sad. While her aunt Sam (short for Samantha) and Sam's pediatrician companion Clark Goode have long been her beloved adoptive parents, Annie hasn't come to terms with her father's disappearance from her life. She doesn't even know the real name of her mother. It's obviously not Claudette Colbert, which is written on her birth certificate. To add to her wistfulness, she's in the process of divorcing her self-centered husband, whom she had the bad grace to discover in bed with their squadron leader's wife.
But everything is about to change.
Arriving home for her 26th birthday party, Annie discovers that Sam has received a message that Jack is dying of cancer. His only wish is to see Annie -- but that it's essential she fly to St. Louis in the King of the Sky. Meanwhile, both Annie and Sam are also receiving strange phone calls -- from a laid-back Miami cop named Daniel Hart; from the mysterious but charming Rafael Rook, whose speech is larded with fractured quotes from Shakespeare; and even from soon-to-be-ex-husband Brad, who wants to win back Annie's love. As the plot begins to twist and turn, it grows clear that Annie's "catch-me-if-you-can" father is being hotly pursued by the Miami vice squad, a ruthless criminal kingpin, various members of the FBI and at least one high-ranking U.S. government official. What, Annie wonders, is actually going on?
Why, for instance, does Jack need his old airplane? Is he really dying? What's so important about Annie's childhood baseball cap and Jack's beat-up bomber jacket and various old photographs? Gradually, we realize that Annie herself is at the center of mysteries that reach back deep into the past, to a time before the young pilot was even born. There's the Peregrine family curse, a legend about a 16th-century jewel-encrusted statue, a series of verbal and alphanumeric codes, a box supposedly containing a thorn from the crown of Christ and, of course, the secret of Annie's parentage. The amazing thing is that Malone fits everything neatly together in a novel that is part caper, part love story, part family romance.
Malone sharpened his storytelling skills in the 1990s as the Emmy award-winning scriptwriter for the daytime serial "One Life to Live." There Malone clearly learned that people love melodrama, especially when it's as artful and witty as he, like John Irving or Robertson Davies, knows how to make it. Little wonder that in his acknowledgments to "Handling Sin," one of the funniest picaresque novels of modern times, Malone names Cervantes, Fielding and Dickens as his teachers. They'd be proud of him.
After all, "The Four Corners of the Sky" revels in the sheer joy of what those old melodramas used to call "life's rich tapestry." As the philosophical con man Rafael Rook observes: "All the world's a stage, Annie, or possibly more precisely, cable television. . . . What with all the whips and scorns and fardels of life, even the extra-large bottle of Tylenol from Costco is insufficient. Such a world we live in. Such a world."
Rook is my favorite character, but it's really hard to choose among such plenty. Consider Sam, who runs a video store called Now Voyager and believes "that movies showed people how to live their lives with a great score and the boring parts cut out." Sam is an old-style '60s radical: "You know how I feel about voting for politicians: it only encourages them." When she worries that the King of the Sky might not be mechanically sound, Annie answers: "Sam, you're a woman who's owned -- just in the twenty years I've known you -- a Gremlin, a Pinto, and a Yugo, and you're asking about good mechanics? Ha!" Then there's the quiet-spoken Clark, given to awful puns -- "You hear about the red ship that collided with the blue ship and all the sailors were marooned?" -- and to neat low-key humor: When Annie tells him that he wants everybody to fall in love, Clark replies: "I tried it myself a couple of times. I enjoyed it." And there's Georgette, Annie's best friend, who grows up to be a psychiatrist with issues about her weight and lack of success with men. Annie suggests that her condo neighbor could be Georgette's type. Georgette replies: "He's my type if he's got a combined total of at least three arms and legs and he weighs less than four times his IQ. Can he spell his last name? Has he been convicted of any capital crimes -- I don't mean just charged, but actually convicted?" Even the noxious Brad is just charmingly loathsome, as he hits on every attractive woman he meets, even while insisting to Annie that he wants only her. Two of Malone's set pieces -- Annie and Brad's wedding and the funeral of Coach Ronny Buchstabe -- are almost painfully hilarious.
Family secrets, hidden treasure, elaborate scams, terrific characters, equal parts humor and excitement -- what more could a reader want?
Con artists are always selling dreams, but so are real artists. Michael Malone's "The Four Corners of the Sky" is a dream of a summer novel.
Dirda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.