"The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living," by Martin Clark. Alfred A. Knopf. 345 pages. $24.
Martin Clark's exceedingly charming novel commences as a shaggy-dog picaresque, the jovial tale of North Carolina superior court judge Evers Wheeling, his dope-head brother Pascal and a mysterious woman who cries ivory-white tears. Soon enough, though, the book takes a few serious twists and acquires an emotionally satisfying purpose. In other words, you can climb aboard "The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living" assured that the author is going to take you for a good ride.
When we meet Judge Evers, he's a tough-minded but fair dispenser of justice, yet a man who, as his wife, Jo Miller Wheeling, remarks, "see[s] the world strangely. Women, people, school, everything." Evers has his faults -- a few mistresses; a propensity to drop out for days on end and join his brother in smoking marijuana; and a mean streak when he's crossed. By the comic-Southern-gothic terms that Clark sets up, Evers is a good guy, given to the philosophical.
When Jo Miller, as she's invariably called, is moved to commit adultery as a way of getting back at Evers' own infidelities, the judge reflects, "Women have a way of defeating our titles and pretences. Strip us right down to the nub."
The fact that Evers' own stripped-nub response to Jo Miller's unfaithfulness is to leave her, without clothes, tied to a highway road-sign pole with a note advising no one to help her since this is a college sorority candidate fulfilling a pledge requirement (in fact, she is certainly not) may prevent some readers from finding Evers a sympathetic protagonist, but in the rough-and-tumble world Clark creates, even Jo Miller doesn't hold it against her unpredictable spouse.
The novel takes its title from an inveiglement that Pascal, whom Jo Miller refers to as "the prince of white trash," uses to coax Evers to join him when the judge's marriage shrivels: "Be feckless and come live with me ... Enjoy the many aspects of mobile home living and cable TV." Evers takes his brother up on his offer, which leads to a series of adventures, among them a treasure hunt with a $100,000 goal, the death of Jo Miller and a subsequent murder investigation in which the judge turns detective and discovers a culprit who's uncomfortably close to him.
And then there's what the judge calls "the albino sorrow," those white tears, which Evers keeps in a liquor decanter and which he considers a miracle plopped into his life -- and which serves as a metaphor for all the chance blessings and curses that follow the judge around like twin shadows.
Clark tells his improbable story in precisely the right tone -- a deadpan, demotic prose style in which outrageous events and jokes reach their maximum amusement and poignance for being so simply stated. Toward the end of the novel, Evers begins to fear that Pascal's credo -- "You're only young once, but you can be immature forever" -- may have led him to make too many foolish decisions about his life: "I'm living in an apartment with brown plastic paneling, and I'm probably going to lose my job and end up as a blurb in 'USA Today.' "
Evers ruminates for a moment, and concludes, "Could be worse, could be better." For the purposes of "The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living," it's for the better.
Ken Tucker is a music critic for National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" and critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly, where he writes about television, movies, books and music. He was a critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1982 to 1989.
Pub Date: 04/02/00