Book Review: Blunt Is Good In "The Next Right Thing"
The murder mystery, woven around the egg-shell ballet of alcoholics getting sober, follows ex-cop Randy Chalmers as he cuts a ragged path through Laguna Beach, California, trying to answer some stubborn questions about the death of his friend and AA sponsor, Terry. Hauling his problems around from place to place, Randy crashes into foul situations like a wayward pinball, footing himself repeatedly at the perilous junction of “recovering alcoholic making a good decision” and “recovering alcoholic making a bad, bad decision.”
“A lot of people in recovery, they’re beyond their problems,” Barden says, speaking of alcoholics who straddle the worlds of rehabiltation and crime. “This book is about, at any given moment, they could go back the other way.” The battered souls of The Next Right Thing are utterly human in just that way -- oh, yes, imperfect, but not hopeless.
Barden gives Randy Chalmers’ narration the squinty, bothered tone of someone who has held onto his hangover for a decade or so; he's a crusty, irascible wreck with a soft side. Confess to him your troubles, and you'll likely end up his new and beloved patient.
A cast of sidekicks play witnesses and abettors to, as Barden calls it, Randy’s “process" of not drinking, as the story trots along. These violent, dishonest floaters aren’t faulted for their “ready-fire-aim” induced skirmishes, however; they are even lovable, much in the same way the world’s ugliest dog is lovable.
In fact, there's something endearing about all of Barden's characters -- they possess an earnestness and a capacity to make us mutter 'bless his heart' in response to their frequent slides down the moral ladder. None of the secondary players were rendered with a tremendous amount of depth, though, and it is difficult to say whether or not this was deliberate on Barden’s part; as foil-y as they are to Randy and the rest of the plot, we never do know them very well.
Barden hasn’t just written a crime novel in The Next Right Thing. He has created an entire world in 283 pages. Taking up Alcoholics Anonymous and the complicated dynamics between members in such unblinking style is a brave action, but does it ever work. The hard-breathing desperation lacing the story’s veins like a drug, both defiant and redemptive, feels absolutely authentic.
Readers will recognize the various universal struggles present in the novel, glean some sympathetic pleasure or pain, and perhaps chew on the mystery of atonement. And that would be a worthwhile endeavor with this particular book, because of what Barden knows well, and he writes it, “how beautiful that lack of hope can be.”
Author and Butler University Associate Professor of English Dan Barden will appear at the 2012 Los Angeles Times Festive of Books, held on USC’s campus on Saturday and Sunday, April 21 and 22.
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