I have never been to a substance (or any other) abuse meeting, but I have a number of friends who have, and they have shared with me about their trials. I’m pretty frequently convinced that we’re all addicted to something, and that some of what we’re addicted to isn’t good for us (even if it’s not as obvious as drunkenness or debauchery). So I was intrigued by the ideas around Butler University professor Dan Barden’s sophomore book, The Next Right Thing, which quotes The Big Book before diving into the mystery surrounding the death of an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor.
Our protagonist, Randy Chalmers is an ex-cop, now landscape/architect guru, who has been sober for eight years but experiences his new life on a constantly dangling rope. His ex-wife battles him for custody of their thirteen-year-old daughter; his friend Wade is good but ultimately not always trustworthy, and his sponsor Terry has been dead for about a month, under suspicious situations. And all of this means that Chalmers is on edge, twitchy, and hungry for answers about the death of his friend.
Barden’s book is obviously a tribute to the works of wise guy thrillers like Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, and the dialogue tries hard (too hard?) to get there. The story itself runs about fifty pages too long and, while it contains the sort of narrative wrap-up that makes us chuckle and lets the protagonist grow, doesn’t ever let us quite get grounded. It’s too jam-packed or overpopulated with people and ideas, as the message and the story vie for our attention.
Walking toward redemption and absolution, Chalmers is a lot like us, even without the rage and ex-cop issues. We’re full of mistakes, and ultimately we need the forgiveness of others (and God) to make us whole. We try to figure things out, but our old issues and mistakes constantly reach up and trip us. It’s an uphill battle, sideways in the pouring rain, through quicksand. Or something like that. And I appreciated Barden’s depiction of the battle with addiction, even if it got twisted up with the story. In the end, it was what I thought made the book readable, what drew me in, and ultimately, what was the more interesting of the two streams of thought.