Saturday, February 18, 2012

Book Review: Addiction Noir

The Next Right Thing by Dan Barden

To date, I’ve only reviewed one novel here at Addiction Inbox—Steve Earle’s I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, featuring the ghost of Hank Williams standing in for the addictive pleasures that musicians are heir to. Now comes The Next Right Thing by Dan Barden, an exemplar of a new literary genre I am going to call addiction noir. Dial Press, the Random House imprint that published the book, is putting Barden forward as a recovering alcoholic who has grokked this scene from the inside. “Dan Barden knows firsthand the difficulties of sobriety…. The Next Right Thing is a powerful new take on the recovery narrative.”

“I’m a recovering alcoholic,” Barden said in the press release, “and I had always wanted to write something about that experience but I couldn’t find a way to tell that story that didn’t seem stupid.”

That changed one morning while Barden was reading the New York Times. “It occurred to me that I could put everything I knew about recovery into a crime story…. There are a lot of great novels about the disease of addiction itself but not so many about recovery, mostly because there’s something very oblique and mysterious about recovery.”

The elements of Barden’s novel certainly aren’t new—a knowing, seen-it-all reformed alcoholic who happens to be an ex-cop, for starters—and plenty of unsavory bad guys. Add in the requisite women, attractive and troubled, or, as our hero Randy Chalmers prefers them, “insane and beautiful.” Chalmers is looking into the suspicious heroin overdose of his AA sponsor, Terry, in a rundown Santa Ana motel, fifteen years sober at the time of his death. The investigation leads Chalmers, sober himself for 8 years, into a tangle of recovery houses fronting as marijuana grow sites and secret shooting sets for amateur porn videos. The crisp quips and one-liners are often focused on the world of addiction. There are nice set pieces, and Chandleresque observations:

--“Those were the days of crack pipes and precious little eating. Even after she got her bearings back, she moved with the anxious, staticky jerks of a cartoon cat. She radiated disease.”

--“I hit him without thinking… but I was surprised to be once again acting without my own consent. That’s the way people talk about taking a drink, as though it’s happening to someone else at some gauzy distance. Like your arm is lifting the glass, and your consciousness has nothing to do with it.”

--“Even with all the step work and therapy and success, people still imagine they will be okay when the are rich. Or married. Or have a baby. Life for an alcoholic is often a process of discovering all the things that don’t make any difference.”

However, the book is marred by the kind of bewildering rumination that can result when a soap opera full of characters is at full boil: “Something about the recovery house scheme didn’t sit right with me. And why was this Simon Busansky character missing in action? Why had Mutt Kelly parked outside my house? Who had made that call to Cathy? Who was the business partner who so preoccupied Terry during the birth of the child he’d always wanted?”

Nevertheless, the book reads quickly, like a noirish mystery should. For influences, Barden lists the usual suspects—Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, George Pelecanos. With decent sales, I could see this becoming a book series, with our sober ex-cop getting himself involved in helping the wrong addict, or helping acquit the right one. With the public recognition of addiction seemingly at an all-time high, and with the ranks of the recently recovered always in the process of being replenished, there just might be a market for this sort of thing.

In a press release, Barden said the book was about “people who are trying to live sober lives against all odds. And what that’s like for me and my friends is complicated and beautiful and dramatic and terrifying. What’s it like to try to do the right thing by your family and friends when many of your instincts run against that?”

Or, as Randy Chalmers puts it: “Here’s another thing you learn in A.A.: when the drunk loses the woman he loves, you know you’re not at the end of the story. You know it’s going to get much worse.”

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Joseph Duemer said...

Not a crime novel so much as a crime OF a novel, there is the poet John Berryman's Recovery, wich is a heartbreaking account of Berryman's attempts to quit drinking. A great poet and not very good novelist, Berryman killed himself in 1973. Berryman's Dream Songs are great poetry and while Recovery comes nowhere near their pathos, it would be of interest to anyone interested in addiction and recovery.

Beth Burgess said...

You will be happy to know that I'm publishing a couple of books about recovery. You are right, there are hardly any books out there about recovery! What a shame, as it can be an amazing place to be if you do it right. They are not fiction books, they are designed to help people, but each one tells a bit about my story, too.

And Joseph, thanks so much for the head's up on Berryman - I have read some of Dream Songs but inexplicably I have never come across 'Recovery'. Slapped wrist for me.

Beth Burgess

Cyrus said...

The novel seems to provide readers a different perspective to the often obscure nature of addiction and recovery.

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