A 12-Step Murder Mystery

By Sam Lansky 03/05/12

Meet the man behind The Next Right Thing, an effusively praised new novel that uses the recovery world as a backdrop for murder.

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Recovery? Crime? Why not?

Randy Chalmers, the protagonist of Dan Barden’s much-ballyhooed new novel, The Next Right Thing, is a violent and temperamental 40-something ex-cop. Cruising through southern Orange County in a seething rage fueled by caffeine and adrenaline, he desperately tries to discover who was responsible for the mysterious death of a close friend. In the process, he's drawn into a web of criminal activities that include amateur pornography, real estate fraud, and marijuana farming. But in a hard-boiled crime novel like this one, none of that is surprising. Instead, what’s most unexpected about The Next Right Thing is that Randy, and virtually all of the other characters in the book, are recovering (or relapsing) alcoholics and addicts. In fact Alcoholics Anonymous serve as the narrative backdrop for the unfolding drama. Even the title of the book is borrowed from an oft-repeated AA motto.

Compared to most addiction memoirs, The Next Right Thing—which has been endorsed by such literary heavyweights as Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Lethem— is a refreshingly sordid look at sobriety—more engaging than the sinless serenity that drives most tales about life after addiction. As Barden’s damaged characters curse and fight their way through the hills of tony Laguna Beach and the grittier streets of urban Santa Ana, they defy any expectations that sobriety translates into saintliness.

Barden has crafted a book that’s a crime novel first and a novel about AA second.

“The mistake people have made when they write about recovery is that they represent it as if it’s like heaven,” Barden explains. “Everything works out, everything is wonderful, people are kind, the program is embracing—and I think all of that’s true to a certain extent, but it’s also not true. There are a lot of angry and crazy people in recovery, as there are in every part of life. Personally, that’s more interesting to me.”

Barden, who’s been sober for 26 years,  is the author of the 1997 book John Wayne: A Novel and a creative writing instructor at Butler University. He says that after struggling to write about recovery, he realized that a crime novel could be a natural way to explore the culture of AA. “In studying [Raymond Chandler’s] The Long Goodbye, I realized that a lot of the things I wanted to talk about in terms of recovery were really well-suited for a certain kind of hard-boiled crime novel,” he says. “The heroes in these sorts of novels were caught in a web of alcoholism—even if it wasn’t theirs, it was the alcoholism of their friends: The Long Goodbye starts with the hero in a parking lot seeing a man drunkenly falling out of his car. I see that book as being very much about the disease of alcoholism and the impact it has on our culture. And when I understood that, I was able to write a crime novel about alcoholism.”

While other writers have featured active or recovering alcoholics in their novels, few have delved into as many actual details about AA. When alcoholism is depicted in literature, as well as in film and television, it's usually a peripheral subject aspect of the story. A character might attend a meeting or drop an AA cliché but recovery is rarely a dominant feature of the narrative. Even books that focus on addiction often avoid AA talk in an effort to avoid violating the traditions of anonymity.

“If you’re a member of AA, you have to be so careful about how you relate to AA in public that many people have very smartly avoided the issue,” Barden says. “For example, in Lit, Mary Karr does an incredible job of talking about her recovery without letting us know if she’s a member of AA, and I think that’s admirable and wonderful. She hasn’t betrayed any alcoholics in the process of writing this book.” But Lit is a memoir, whereas in the fictive world that Barden has created, he can take liberties that would be impossible in the first person. “I can’t imagine anyone writing in this much detail about AA in a memoir,” he says. “It would be too problematic for them, if they were an actual member of AA. One of the advantages I have as a novelist is that I can present these stories, but they’re not my stories.” 

The other reason Barden believes that more writers don’t delve into the world of recovery is the simple fact that stories about people getting better just aren’t particularly interesting. “I spend a lot of time thinking about John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost for this very reason,” Barden says. “The central dilemma is that God is boring and Satan is a rock star. When you’re describing somebody destroying their life, it’s really dramatic but when you’re describing them putting it back together, it’s just not. I think that’s one of the reasons that my characters in this novel are often dry: because that makes it possible for them to get in trouble in a way that propels the story.”

A dry drunk is probably more tolerable on the page than in real life. Even so, there’s a jarring discrepancy between Randy’s program-centric speech and narration, rich with slogans that would be familiar to anyone who has spent time in 12-step programs, and Randy’s behavior—which becomes, effectively, a low-damage crime spree in pursuit of the truth about Terry’s death. And yet this may be the truest element of The Next Right Thing—that it shows just how easy it is for the spiritually unfit to use AA doctrine to justify poor decision-making. That’s a subject that feels fresh amidst the many books about addiction and recovery on the market, and it makes The Next Right Thing a hell of a lot more provocative than the average hardboiled crime novel. 

Essentially, with The Next Right Thing, Barden has crafted a book that’s a crime novel first and a novel about AA second, and it’s at its most effective when the AA proselytizing of the characters yields to Barden’s enviably clean, unadorned prose. But then, Barden didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel. “In some ways, I’m writing a very different kind of book, but in other ways, I’m writing the same old book that many people have written before,” he says. “Because when you go into the dark regions of our culture, it’s about addiction. That’s all it’s about.”

Sam Lansky is an editor at Wetpaint and a regular contributor to The Fix who also wrote about his sobriety in relation to Britney Spears and sex and relationships in sobriety, among many other topics. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/samlansky

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