An interview with Dan Barden about his new book
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Dan Barden's new novel, The Next Right Thing, is a rare beast: a detective story where the central mystery turns out not to be the most important thing going on. Incidentally, and perhaps even rarer, it's also a detective story that makes you wonder if you ought to take up construction and interior design. For that is the unlikely passion of Barden's hard-boiled hero, a man with a darker past than most noir protagonists.
This protagonist, Randy Chalmers, is an ex-cop turned high-end contractor whose equilibrium is destroyed when his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor turns up dead in a hotel room from a heroin overdose. On his quest for answers, he hurls profanity and fists with equal measure, drowning his sorrows in double espressos—hilariously incongruent until the reader remembers that the alternative, which looms larger than any villain in this narrative, is alcohol, otherwise known as relapse.
As Chalmers stumbles towards an understanding of the people and plots involved in his friend's death, he attempts to save a few lives while demolishing his own. We're treated to a parade of wildly disparate South Californian images: yoga teachers and semi-legal handymen, yacht clubs and recovery houses, high-powered lawyers and blond surfers. We talked to Dan Barden about his inspiration for this novel.
How did you come to writing?
When I was in college there wasn't anything else that I did well and I was looking for a way to distinguish myself. We had some awesome poets and fiction writers at my school: Robert Pinsky, Frank Bidart, short-story writer Leonard Michaels—it was a delightful experience. Then I got out of school and I kept thinking, "Oh, this is the point at which I quit writing. I've graduated now: I'm going to quit writing. My first book wasn't published: I'm going to quit writing. I got out of an MFA program: I'm going to quit writing." And it just never happened. Every juncture where I should have been mightily discouraged I just kept on going. I remember thinking particularly when I tried to sell my MFA thesis and I couldn't—no one was interested in it—"you know, this would be a really good time to quit."
Where did you get the idea for this novel in particular?
Well, I'm very proud of my book published in 1997, John Wayne: A Novel—I think it's a coherent work of art and I did what I wanted to do. But after the publication I realized that I wanted to write this much more—a novel, a big novel, a story that took 300 to 400 pages to tell, that had a sweep, and that was as exciting to me as the things that I read: I didn't want to write something that was quite so literary. So I went to school on crime novels in particular and I made really extensive studies of people like Raymond Chandler, Robert B. Parker, Kem Nunn. I really wanted to write something that was exciting in the way that novels excited me and I thought that meant it would be a crime story. I wrote a couple novels that didn't work out. I spent many years out there in the weeds trying to write a different kind of book and I didn't succeed.
The other thing that was going on was that I'd been sober for a long time. Getting sober was the most important experience of my life and I really wanted to write about that. But I couldn't find a way. There are a lot of reasons why it seems to me to be an inherently undramatic experience.
And then one day I was standing in my kitchen eating breakfast and I was looking at the "portraits of grief" in the New York Times when I suddenly realized that in some ways my relationship to the people who had helped me get sober resembled a crime novel. My relationship to my friends, and particularly my relationship with this one man who ended up dying of a heroin overdose himself, would be the substance for a story if I took my own grief and put it in to some characters that one might recognize from a crime novel—like the ex-cop with the anger management problem.
And so I just turned over The New York Times and started writing an outline of this novel that I could see in my head.
I put some of my experience and the information that I'd been gleaning from reading all of these great crime novels into a story, and that became The Next Right Thing.
So there's actually significant autobiographical material at the heart of the novel?
Well I have this friend who died of a heroin overdose and I had spent the day with him a few weeks before it happened and I didn't see it coming. When he died, my overwhelming impulse was to find out what had happened, which in some ways is a ridiculous impulse: You know what happened—he shot drugs and he died. What more do you need to know? And yet I wanted to know everything. I wanted to know if someone had been with him, I wanted to know what the circumstances were before, and I had this kind of ridiculous impulse to figure it out.
One thing that's interesting in the novel is how quickly the main character's friends and family identify his obsession with his friend's death as a relapse, an addiction behavior in and of itself whether or not he's drinking. Is the point here that addiction is fundamentally a thought pattern, a behavior: that though it's very destructive, it's not necessarily about the drugs?
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Yes, and I think that's close to the heart of the book. A textbook for people who go to Alcoholics Anonymous says, "We were victims of delusion that we could wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if we only managed well." I think at the heart of addiction is this idea—at least for me—that if I just get all my ducks in order everything will all be okay. If I can just manage the situation, if I can just understand the situation; if I can just get everybody to do what they're supposed to do, I'll be okay.
The Alcoholics Anonymous textbook represents that as a delusion. And I totally get that. Sometimes I'm watching Law and Order like everybody else in America and I think, "You know, who really gives a shit?" Someone got murdered! Figuring out what happened and getting to the bottom of it isn't going to solve the fundamental problem that you lost your father. It doesn't achieve anything.
So I think one of the things you have to do as a recovering alcoholic and addict is to try to accept the world the way it is. The problem for me became that, if everyone had enough Prozac and was spiritual enough, there would be no more crime stories. No one would want to watch TV. No one would want to see a blockbuster. The thing I do when I write a story is I create a world that is out of balance. What I do as a recovering alcoholic is I recognize that the world is already in balance: Whatever appears to be fucked up at any given moment is exactly the way it is supposed to be.
Did you struggle, while writing this book, with how much of it would be pure crime novel and how much of it would be musings on addiction? Or did those two approaches fit together naturally?
When I studied The Long Goodbye—and I just love Philip Marlowe, and he's just the most wonderful character ever—one of the things I realized was that Philip Marlowe causes all of his own problems. He could be a successful private detective. He's had plenty of offers from people to pay him a lot better than he gets paid. And yet he always kind of bets on the wrong horse. He always gets involved with people who, if he were sane, he wouldn't get involved with.
So I started to see that, as ridiculous as this sounds, the motor for the plot is Marlowe's codependence: his interest and willingness to get involved with people that are fuck-ups and losers.
And one of the things that fascinates me about recovery, recovery as I've seen it, is that you shouldn't care about a lot of these people in AA. You shouldn't care about them the way that you care about them. They're not good horses to bet on. Their recovery is unlikely. The fact that they're ever going to become productive citizens is unlikely. And that's what to me is so heroic and wonderful about it: these are the lost causes, and they really are lost causes.
In The Long Goodbye, all the problems begin when Philip Marlowe decides to defend this drunk named Terry Lennox. Terry is really an asshole—he's a problem. And yet the heroism is that Marlowe takes him on even though he is a problem. Marlowe's not trying to end apartheid or anything—he's defending this guy who's a pain in the ass.
It seems like there's a strong theme in your writing about what it means to be a good man. It's a natural fascination, but you make it more explicit than some. Where does this fascination come from, for you?
It feels like what I personally wake up with every morning. I'm six-foot-three-inches tall, over 200 pounds, and I'm from an Irish-Catholic background. Sometimes I look in the mirror and I think I look like the face of patriarchy in America. I think, "What must people see when they see me?"
But that's not who I feel like. I feel like I grew up in the '70s and over-identified with my mother and believe in feminism and all the other things that came out of my time. And yet I also am aware of the power, beauty, productivity, and effectiveness of, for lack of a better word, the masculine principle in American society. I love John Wayne. I love crime novels. I haven't met an Elmore Leonard novel that I didn't love. I loved watching Justified on TV. All that stuff is profoundly beautiful and meaningful to me, and yet I also know how problematic it is. I'm very aware of how problematic a figure like John Wayne is, and I'm very aware of how problematic a figure like Randy Chalmers, my hero, is.
For me, getting up in the morning is an act of reconciling the paradox of what it is to be a man in America. And it's not merely interesting: It's a matter of saving your life.
For example: Randy. I love Randy so much, and I love men like Randy who have figured out a way to negotiate their own impulses toward violence. Part of what I love about him is that he makes terrible mistakes and then he has to figure out how to live in the aftermath of his terrible mistakes.