Novel packs a lot of hard punches

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 30, 2012

“The Next Right Thing,” by Dan Barden. The Dial Press. 2012. 283 pp. $26.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY — Picking up “The Next Right Thing,” I expected a hard-boiled crime novel.
It’s hard-boiled all right, and there’s plenty of crime, but this is also a hard-boiled, recovering-alcoholic novel. It’s filled with references to the 12 steps, the Big Book, the stages of recovery.
“The Next Right Thing,” by Dan Barden, is, in many ways, his own story of recovery. Our erstwhile hero, Randy Chalmers, is an ex-cop who has a problem with impulse control. His solution to most obstacles or annoyances is a swift right to the nose, or, if you’ve really ticked him off, a full-body workover.
He pulls no punches. Deep down he is mad as hell; on the surface, he’s even angrier.
His Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor has been found dead of a heroin overdose. Impossible, he says. Has to be a murder.
He sets out on a relentless path filled with opportunities to make his life more of a disaster, and doesn’t miss a one.
Randy’s thirst for the truth is as dangerous as an alcoholic’s thirst for liquor. He will stop at nothing, will leave no nose unbroken, no scumbag standing, to find out what happened to Terry, his rock, his best friend.
We all know what it’s like to be bitterly disappointed by a friend, a sibling, a parent. There’s a special intensity, if Barden’s writing rings true, to the disappointment between a sponsor and his protege.
When the sponsor falls, can there be any hope for those he guided? Can rocks turn to ashes just like that?
Toting along another AA buddy, Wade, Randy charges through the landscape asking questions, threatening people and losing his focus.
His anger takes over too often, so that his girlfriend, his sister and even his beloved daughter begin to turn away.
He picks up other hopeless people during his rampage, another alcoholic, Troy, who needs a sponsor, a fallen reality-TV star who would really like to kill someone, a new mother who may be the only person who has the power to keep Randy from total self-destruction.
The story in “The Next Right Thing” can’t be called linear. It’s more like a week in a bumper car ride. Randy learns things that might explain what happened Terry, but he then begins hearing rumors and accusations that make the entire AA program in the area suspicious and corrupt.
Is there money involved? Of course. Everyone is trying to figure out how to make a little more on the side, how to slip through that legal fence quietly, to walk on the greener grass of corruption.
First Randy learns about an elaborate marijuana-growing set-up in the basement of halfway houses all owned by one man; then, to his horror, he hears Terry’s name mentioned. Terry, when he cleaned up his act, became a hot-shot lawyer. His fellow AA members offer him plenty of work. But has he gone too far? Would it be enough of a fall to prompt a date with his old friend heroin?
Then Randy learns, through various intimidations and dirty cop work, that those houses weren’t just being used to grow marijuana. Some of the recovering alcoholics are being used to film pornography.
It looks like Terry might have know about that, too.
But then Randy discovers why Terry was at a hospital just the day before his overdose — his greatest dream has been fulfilled, he’s become a father.
The overdose seems even more unlikely. As Randy blunders through his investigation, which is beginning to look like a review of criminal activity, he begins to see things for what they really are — not for what he wants them to be.
Randy’s anger earns a restraining order from his ex-wife that won’t allow him to see the daughter he loves so much; as he loses friends and sinks into a hole, Randy can finally see.
The light nearly kills him, as the story seems to come to a climax. He’s learned the truth about Terry, and about a lot of other people, but he still has to rebuild his life, again.
And so the remainder of the book shows a gentler, humbler Randy, a man with less anger and more desire to straighten up his life to get back the people he loves.
This book is a wild ride, full of battles and danger. It’s chock full of recovery language and struggling people, and the story is more about them than it is about what happened to the dead man.
If you take it on, you will get a great deal more about alcoholism than anything else. Maybe that’s the reason Barden wrote it.