Sophia by Michael Bible

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Reviewed by Annabel

There are only 105 pages to this short novel, making it a novella really, but it sure does pack a punch. It has a cast of characters that just jump off the page and a style all of its own.

The entire novel is told in little vignettes – not a new device – it’s something Evan S Connell did in the 1950s in his superb pair of novels, Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge for instance. However, Bible’s vignettes are even shorter than Connell’s – they are a single paragraph or snippet of conversation at most, three or more to a page.

We are also nowhere near the Bridges’ suburbia. Sophia is set in the heat of the Deep South, and has a narrator that could have come straight out of a Hunter S. Thompson story. The Right Reverend Alvis Maloney describes himself as:

A holy fool on the hunt for something worthy.
I’m the lazy priest of this town’s worst church, nearly defrocked for lascivious behaviour with female parishioners. I want to die for the King of Kings but can’t quite get it right.

He lives in a boat and has a girlfriend called Tuesday and one remaining friend called Eli.

Eli, Eli. You are my last friend. You live with your brother Boom on the edge of town. You know the days of the week everyone was born on, a calendar savant in suspenders and a black trucker hat. Eyes like blue marbles, a Marlboro dangles from your lip. Your father tried to beat smarts into you and that pedophile baptized you in the Mississippi River. Be my Sancho, Eli, my man Friday, my Robin, my Dr. Spock drunk on the job. Your hat says, Easy come, easy go. I light your smoke.

Maloney may be a whiskey priest for whom the traditional vows of the priesthood don’t mean much, but he does believe in his own way. He knows all the stories of the Saints but has sex dreams about the Holy Ghost. He also reveres Elvis, fat Elvis, and underneath it all he knows about art and literature, quoting from Waiting for Godot and Henry V, high on heroin declaiming Dali as a pornographer. We never really get to find out how Maloney got like he is – our narrator keeps the story in the here and now.

Dumped again by Tuesday, Maloney comes up with a scheme to make money from Eli who is a chess genius. They’ll travel the country entering chess tournaments and clean up on Eli’s winnings. Maloney takes up with Darling from the town diner, and together with Eli, they hitch up Maloney’s boat to the car and head off on the road for more chess tournaments.

What they hadn’t reckoned on was Eli’s wife Nono working out Maloney’s scheme to make money out of Eli. That should be her money. She hires a hitman – Jack Cataract – he’s blind, and they set off on Maloney’s trail.

The road trip will end in New York, chess heaven. Cataract chases Maloney, Eli and Darling all over the city climaxing at one of the City’s most patriotic landmarks. And Sophia? I hear you ask. I’m not telling how and when she puts in an appearance.

Bible studied under the Mississippi author Barry Hannah – with whom I’m as yet unfamiliar, yet upon researching really want to read. The publisher’s blurb compares him with Nicholson Baker and Denis Johnson amongst others – authors I’ve not read extensively, so again hard to compare. The best comparison I can come up with is to say that if Tom Waits had come from the Deep South rather than California, he’d surely have come up with the Reverend Maloney in his songs – you can imagine this as a song lyric:

When was the last time you saw the devil, I ask the legless woman. What color was his tie?

This book made me laugh, it’s also sexy and full of adventure – all wrapped up in the musings of a gin-soaked priest, who ultimately still believes.  The vignette style really works well here and I’ll definitely keep an eye out for what Michael Bible does next as I loved this book.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Michael Bible, Sophia (Melville House, 2015). 978-1612194721, 105pp., paperback original.

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