Dan Barden’s novel “The Next Right Thing” didn’t lessen my admiration for Alcoholics Anonymous, but it does offer a darker view of AA — at least as seen in one fictional Southern California chapter — than I’d encountered before.
Barden uses a crime story as his vehicle to explore the world of addiction and recovery. His plot is as old as “The Maltese Falcon”: a man determined to learn the truth about his friend’s death. Randy Chalmers is an ex-cop, an ex-husband and, like the author, a recovering alcoholic. His best friend and AA sponsor, Terry Elias, a lawyer who’d been clean and sober for 15 years, is found dead of a heroin overdose in a seedy motel in Laguna. Randy sets out to learn whether foul play might have been involved.
Randy is himself given to violence: That’s why he’s an ex-cop and has an ex-wife who despises him and a girlfriend who’s close to leaving him. He charges about questioning, threatening and sometimes slugging people — he’s the classic “dry drunk” — and in the process he digs up plenty of dirt. One of his pals in AA is growing marijuana and paying off crooked cops. Another operates a scam that involves renting space in “recovery houses” to recent recruits for inflated prices. Another has been “thirteenth stepping” — AA jargon for seducing vulnerable newcomers to the program, which is considered “scumbag behavior.”
It’s a world of anger and hope, friendship and duplicity. We’re treated to colorful characters galore — there’s DUI Dave, who uses his pants cuff for an ashtray, and the local legend who was stabbed in the head but was too drunk to notice — and pithy phrases, such as the man who’s “more than a few fries short of a Happy Meal.” In time, Randy learns that Terry, who had desperately wanted a child, was about to become a father, which makes it even harder to understand how he could have turned to heroin. When another of their circle dies under mysterious circumstances, the police suspect Randy. But all this is standard fare in a crime novel. What gives “The Next Right Thing” its special dimension is its relentless portrayal of the addict’s life. For example:
“Do you know what it took to get clean and sober after four years of shooting dope in the bathrooms of A.A.?”
“Terry and I used to talk about that sweet moment of repose after you’ve almost destroyed your life.”
“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.”
“Life for an alcoholic is often a process of discovering all the things that don’t make any difference.”
“It’s not about deserving or earning or being a good guy. God loves you because that’s what God does.”
Barden offers a grim picture of addiction but one that rings true, and he makes clear that he considers AA the last best hope for millions of desperate people. By the end, Randy thinks he knows why and how Terry died, but that knowledge offers little consolation. The novel’s final passage is a kind of prayer, as angry as it is loving, that Randy offers to his dead friend. As I put the book down, I wondered whether Barden had a friend whose death inspired those haunting paragraphs. It feels that real.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.
THE NEXT RIGHT THING
By Dan Barden
Dial. 283 pp. $26