Michael Malone’s latest (I think), and editors or their lack

Michael Malone, a North Carolina writer, is one of my favorite contemporary authors. He’s also one of the most frustrating. At times, he goes long stretches without publishing a novel. Somehow, when he does come out with a new novel, it takes me by surprise. Even though I’ve been a book-review editor for 25 years, and I’ve reviewed many of his books favorably, his books slip up on me.

The most glaring recent example of that tendency came in the summer of 2010. I ran into an old friend/former colleague in Borders in Winston-Salem. Knowing that I’m a big Michael Malone fan, he told me that Malone had published a novel in 2009, which was by then out in paperback. Used to free review copies, I rarely buy a book for myself, but I snapped up The Four Corners of the Sky. I had not read a new Michael Malone book in years.

I read the book immediately, fully intending to review it for the Winston-Salem Journal. But just about the time I reached the end of the novel, the Journal declared the end of its locally produced book-review page. By the time I got Briar Patch Books up and running, Malone’s book was under a stack of others.

So, before I turn to new books in this new year, here’s a look at Michael Malone’s latest (unless he’s slipped out another one I don’t know about) – and a brief rant about the sad state of editing.

By Linda Brinson

THE FOUR CORNERS OF THE SKY. By Michael Malone. Sourcebooks Landmark. 542 pages. $15.99, paperback.

Can it have been more than 20 years since I had the delightful experience of discovering Michael Malone by reading Handling Sin, his rich, hilarious masterpiece of a picaresque novel?  Since then, I’ve enjoyed every one of his books I could get my hands on, but none has been quite as big, crazy and wonderful as that first one.

But in The Four Corners of the Sky, Malone is back on the road – and in the sky, taking his wonderfully vibrant and eccentric characters back and forth across the country by various means of transport, including a vintage Piper Warrior airplane.

Annie Peregrine’s father gave her that airplane on her seventh birthday, just as he was running away, leaving her with his sister on the North Carolina farm where they had grown up.

Annie’s father, Jack Peregrine, is a con man of the highest order. Along with the plane, he leaves his daughter with a determination to become a pilot. And he also leaves her feeling abandoned and wondering how much of what he’d told her in their madcap life together was just one great big con job.

Her aunt and her aunt’s friend give Annie the security her father never would, and she grows into a determined, no-nonsense, capable young woman.  She’s a Navy pilot, having graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy.  She married an Annapolis classmate, Brad, who also was a pilot before deciding to leave the Navy for more lucrative business. The two-career marriage isn’t going so well, however, especially after Annie caught Brad going beyond the call of duty in trying to comfort the wife of his best Navy friend.

And then Annie gets mysterious communications from her long-missing father, who claims to be dying and needing her to fly the old airplane to St. Louis. Thus starts an odyssey full of mysteries, scams, dangers, treasures, romance, outrageous characters and just about anything you could want in a story.

The Peregrine family home is in Emerald, N.C., and the novel is, in part, a wild retelling of the Wizard of Oz, with Annie as Dorothy and her father as the sham of a wizard. Or is he a sham?

There’s a great deal that’s hilarious and entertaining in this story, but there also is much that is touching. The treasures are not all gems or money. There is much to be discovered about the human heart, about love, forgiveness and the meaning of family.

You’ll race through the 400-plus pages faster than a speeding jet, and you’ll want the story to keep going when you reach the end.

As much as I loved the book, though, I did encounter an annoying problem when reading it.

The problem, I believe, is not really Malone’s. He’s obviously a writer with great imagination, exuberance and passion about the tale he is spinning. All writers, and especially the exuberant ones writing larger-than-life romps, need editors. This book did not get the editing it deserved.

Authors can have poetic license, and fiction does not have to adhere slavishly to reality. But if a writer is going to use real places and institutions and call them by name, then he needs to get those details right. Otherwise, the reader who knows the places or institutions will be jarred by the errors right out of the fictional world the author is trying to create.

That’s what happened to me when reading this book. I had to stop, find a pen, and start marking all the details that were wrong about the Naval Academy, where my son had just spent four years. No, state senators don’t make nominations to the service academies. No, midshipmen don’t learn to fly jets at Annapolis. They graduate after four years of college courses that are heavy on math, science and engineering, and then, if they are going to become pilots, they go to flight school at Pensacola. They aren’t on vacation when they learn of their service selection; they are on campus for the big day. They don’t “retire” from the Navy, as Brad supposedly did, while in their 20s. They resign, if they so choose, after giving the Navy the five or so years they owe; to retire, an officer would have to serve in the Navy about four times that long. And on and on.

It would have been just as easy to get the details right. Doing so would not have changed the essence of the story. But it would have made the novel more enjoyable for readers who are familiar with the service academies; surely, I am not the only one.

There are other sloppy details that just needed an editor’s eye. Malone has Annie and Brad getting married in a justice of the peace’s office, but he also has a Navy chaplain officiating, which seems unlikely. He writes that the wedding takes place in “an ugly desert town west of the San Diego base,” but the only thing west of the San Diego naval base is the Pacific Ocean.

I could go on, but you get the point. Michael Malone is a great writer. I love his books. A great writer deserves a good editor, but good editors seem to have become obsolete and expendable. What a shame.

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