If there's a straight and narrow route and all the rest is heathen mischief, Joel King, a Baptist minister involved in a sex scandal with a teenaged girl, hasn't a prayer of reaching the Pearly Gates.

Fans of The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living, Martin Clark's debut, will find his rollicking second novel, Plain Heathen Mischief, similarly escapist. It's filled with energy runaway sentences and near-Dickensian characters. One is a suave Las Vegas lawyer called Sa'ad X who has a massive mahogany desk and a seven-foot-tall stuffed bear and other assorted animals in his office. Another is a classically evil probation officer who expects bribes. Then there's Edmund, a dishonest former parishioner with a wooden leg who's out to settle a score with all insurance companies, and Sophie, Joel's loyal sister, a single mother who was dumped by her spouse. The teenager that Joel is supposed to have seduced is Christy, a super-bright, super-spoiled, drug-taking, sex-crazed "child" whose parents sent her to Roanoke Baptist for counseling. Somehow, Clark makes Christy appealing, while raising doubts as to what really happened. Joel strayed, but how far? Did he tell the truth when he confessed? And what are his just desserts? It's interesting to note that the author himself is a Virginia circuit court judge, in the business of passing judgment.

After six dreary months in a Virginia jail, Joel, cast out by his wife, moves to Missoula, Montana, and lives in his sister Sophie's basement a situation that at his lowest point finds him broke and lapping food off the floor like a dog. Soon after that incident, he finally agrees to join Edmund and Sa'ad in defrauding an insurance company. That way he'll have money to give to Sophie who, it turns out, doesn't want it.

Toward the end, the plot takes some unexpected turns, and goodness is rewarded. The surprise resolution to Joel's spiritual and financial struggles finds the former minister far wiser than when he dispensed advice from the pulpit. Anne Morris is a reviewer in Austin, Texas.

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