A drug enforcement agent, a friend of a friend, used to say that society is like a skyscraper: Most people stay on one or two floors, only getting to know people about as rich or poor as themselves. Only the cops go to every floor, from the subbasements to the penthouse.
But there is at least one place in which people from wildly varying social classes come together to reveal their deepest shames and longings, to help one another and, often, find friendship: the “rooms” of Alcoholics Anonymous. Dan Barden’s new novel is a blunt and sad little noir mystery set in the world of addiction recovery, and he makes a strong case that sobriety goes just as well with the noir style as the more old-school bottle of bourbon in the desk drawer.
We start off in Southern California with an ex-cop who won’t let a case go. His AA sponsor, a charismatic but troubled man named Terry, has been found dead of a heroin overdose. Randy, the disgraced cop turned homebuilder, feels an overwhelming need to find out who was with Terry and what happened the night of his death, and the investigation turns up a classic noir corruption plot in which not only DEA agents but recovery “superstars” are implicated. “Recovery homes,” where addicts live together and attempt to support one another, are not all they appear to be; with marijuana being farmed in the basement and porn being filmed in the bedrooms, not a lot of recovery seems to be going on.
Barden’s prose is occasionally too florid, especially toward the beginning of the book; but this is a normal problem for modern noir, which suffers from a Chandler inferiority complex. For every punchy one-liner such as, “There’s nothing worse than a beautiful town when you’ve got an ugly head,” there’s something like, “Every day it got harder to pretend I was anyone but myself”—which is trying a bit too hard.
But the prose settles down quickly. The characters start off as fun-enough cartoons, like the espionage-obsessed reality-TV star Emma, but they gradually attain nuance and emotional resonance. And Randy’s own struggles—not so much for sobriety as for serenity, forgiveness, and a way forward out of the wreckage of the past—are presented with poignant bravado and total lack of self-pity. The AA slogan may be “The truth will set you free, but first it will really piss you off,” but here the problem is more that the truth could send you to prison, or the morgue. Accept that.
We live in an age of memoir, a genre whose conventions go unacknowledged. Ask for a list of the best books about addiction and recovery, and very few of them will be genre novels; almost all will be memoirs. (William S. Burroughs may have penned a few exceptions.) But Barden uses the conventions of noir perfectly, giving the audience the specific pleasures it was seeking while illuminating truths about recovery.
The big climactic scene in which the obsessed ex-cop needs to convince the wrongdoer to admit his crimes and explain what still remains unknown is a noir staple that often plays as a capitulation by a writer who can’t figure out how to provide his narrator with clues instead of a point-by-point confession. But here, the criminal’s confession plays as a form of the “fifth step. . . . We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
Randy isn’t only trying to find out whodunnit. He’s also trying to help a crook find the spiritual surrender needed to accept the truth and begin to change. The inherent tension of the scene—Randy and a kidnapper on a beach, Randy trying to talk the guy into dropping his gun before the surrounding cops get fed up and shoot them both—is heightened by the narrator’s empathy with the moral choice being made.
And in a noir, it’s okay if the resolution of the initial mystery is kind of a mess. Raymond Chandler famously couldn’t even remember who actually killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep. The point of murder in a noir isn’t the solution, but the grim revelations turned up by the investigation: a tangled knot of societal corruption and bad personal choices, circumstance and free will.
The Next Right Thing does solve the mystery which sets it off. We do learn what happened to Terry, Randy’s sponsor, on the night he died; and, more or less, we learn why. But Terry’s death lifts the rock on all of Randy’s own unresolved issues, all the holes in his own patchy integrity. The book’s resolution doesn’t come when Randy figures out what happened to Terry, but when he figures out what’s been missing in his own recovery.
The most important confrontation of the book’s climax is between Randy and someone he hurt a long time ago, someone who, in criminal-investigation terms, is totally unrelated to the book’s plot or Terry’s death. But if the confrontation is less than peripheral to Randy’s investigation, it’s central to his choice between recovery and relapse—and that choice starts the book and throbs as a heartbeat on almost every page.
In one way, The Next Right Thing departs from the classic noir mentality. Sure, it features corruption, hypocrisy, guys who are tough but not too hard, and sleazy danger under the palm trees. But unlike books in which finding out whodunit merely returns us to the sordid status-quo ante, The Next Right Thing isn’t cynical about the power of truth.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington.