When I read Dan Barden’s detective noir The Next Right Thing this past March to review it for Full Stop, I devoured it greedily at my local coffee shop in nearly a single sitting, emitting, at uneven intervals and without warning, whoops of demented laughter. The Next Right Thing is Barden’s second novel, but his first mystery. It has the bravado and wit of hardboiled detective classics by Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, but it pokes gentle fun at the genre, too. Barden, a native of Southern California (he now lives in Indianapolis, where he teaches Creative Writing at Butler University), sets the novel in the Alcoholics Anonymous community of Laguna Beach, with its motley crew of surfers, yoga teachers and luxury home designers. The dual plot — mystery and recovery narrative — is raucously funny, surprisingly poignant, and supremely entertaining.
I spoke with Barden over the phone about the hardboiled detective as alcoholic, the vulnerability of the tough guy, and literature’s responsibility to entertain.
Amanda Shubert: What came first for you, the decision to write a detective noir or the decision to write a novel about addiction and recovery?
Dan Barden: It feels like it was a conflation of these two ideas. And I’m embarrassed to say it, but I [first] wrote two books in which I tried in different ways to articulate some things that I was interested in in terms of the experience of recovery. One of them was a comic fable, and the other one was a non-comic fable. I worked very hard on these two novels but they just never, y’know, broke. There was this weird obstacle at about 150 pages. Like I would hand it to my friend and he’d say, “You know, I’m going to finish reading it, I promise.” I’d say, “When did you stop reading?” It was always around page 150. I just couldn’t figure out how to get past that. So I just went to town, I went to school, as I’ve described it, on these crime novels. And I actually typed up three of them, just typed them into my computer. I typed up The Long Goodbye, I typed up Looking for Rachel Wallace by Robert B. Parker, and I think I typed up something like Fight Club. I just wanted to understand as explicitly as possible what was making these narratives work so well. And I think I figured it out. Particularly with Chandler. I became good at describing to myself what he was doing right, and how what he was doing right was allowing him to do all these other things.
So one morning I was reading the paper, and I was looking at the Portraits of Grief section in the New York Times — you remember those? I had this friend who’d died of a heroin overdose many years earlier. He helped me get sober; he was my best friend, my father, my brother, my war buddy all wrapped into one, and he had died of a heroin overdose. I was looking at the New York Times, and I suddenly realized that the recovery story I was trying to write was a crime novel. So I just turned over the paper and started writing an outline right then. It took years to make it as good as I hope it is now, but that was basically the essential moment when I realized that, particularly in my reading of Chandler, there was something wrong with the hardboiled detective. For lack of a better word, there was a certain kind of co-dependency or yearning for earthly justice that was kind of unreasonable and a little sick.
You make it sound like the detective novel is about addiction in the first place — that the detective has an addictive relationship to the world of crime.
Yes. I had this epiphanic moment with Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s hero, particularly, when I realized he was never really investigating crimes. What he was doing was taking care of drunks. Investigating the crimes was almost secondary to the fact that he would fall in love with these losers and want to protect them. Particularly in The Long Goodbye. In The Long Goodbye there’s no story except that Marlowe cares about people that any sane person would dismiss.
I haven’t read it but I’ve seen Robert Altman’s film version of The Long Goodbye, and he really makes the point that this is somebody who is so sensitive and loyal he loses track of the mystery. That reminds me a little of what you’re doing in The Next Right Thing.
Right. What I love about Altman’s version is that at the end of it he just decides to kill him. Do you remember the ending? He just goes, “I’m so tired of your bullshit,” and he kills him.
It’s kind of that moment of “Fuck you — you took me into this narrative I didn’t want to be in! You ruined the story!”
As odd as it may sound, I’d always thought that crime fiction was this special thing, and I loved it so much, and I love those writers so much. I venerate people like James Elroy when he’s at his best, and Charlie Huston. These people just blow my mind, and I didn’t think I was worthy of that kind of writing. But then I was studying Chandler and I thought, “Oh, I know how to care about fucked up people! I know how that works!” It was so clear that that was what it was about. It was about making bad decisions in who your friends are.
What I know about Alcoholics Anonymous is that it’s very much about caring about people you shouldn’t care about. A.A. was started when this stockbroker [Bill W.] from New York went to Ohio on a business trip. He was afraid he was going to drink and so he started calling people and saying, “Listen, who’s the worst alcoholic here?” And they said, “This guy Dr. Bob’s really bad,” and Bill said, “Okay, I want to talk to him.” His solution was that he could help himself with his own alcoholism by helping a hopeless person. So in some ways, recoveries from alcoholism can be said to be about choosing poorly in your friends.
Though in your novel it seems like the friendships end up bolstering Randy Chalmers, your hardboiled detective, in his recovery. Whereas Philip Marlowe keeps changing in his friends for new, bad friends. It seems like your characters come to some kind of closure.
For Marlowe, friendship is kind of a big “fuck you.” What Marlowe’s often doing in those stories is saying to society and the institutions of the world, “You don’t get to choose who my friends are. I’ll defend and be loyal to anyone I damn well please.” That’s his existential stance. And I think Randy is very similar in that the thing that he feels redeemed by as a person is that he’s got this code which I identify very much with — it’s in the code of Alcoholics Anonymous — and that is “Anyone who comes and asks me for my help, I’m gonna help.” Again, that’s very much like a hardboiled detective: You show up in my office, I’m gonna do what I can. I think if you asked Randy, he would say it’s pretty much the only thing that redeems him as a human being, his loyalty to these knuckleheads he hangs out with.
The Next Right Thing dramatizes the interaction between machismo and vulnerability. That’s another element of the novel that unites the mystery plot and the recovery plot. Why are you drawn to writing about masculinity, and why write about it in this way?
I’m not a tough guy. I’ve had many friends and family members who are tough guys and I’ve always been fascinated by that. I spent a lot of my life close to people who know how to fight and would get into fights. One of the things that was always so fascinating to me about this is that on the other side of this willingness to just throw down with people in a bar was this tremendous tenderness that you would often see right after they threw down. I remember when I was younger asking a very close friend of mine about fist fighting, because I don’t really know from experience. And he said, “It’s such an awful thing to hit somebody in the face. It was so terrible to me that sometimes I would be so upset afterwards.” And it was like, “No way, really?” And he said, “Yeah, the next day I would just feel like an awful human being and it would open all this stuff inside me that was really vulnerable.”
That makes terrific sense to me, and it also dovetails nicely with this hardboiled tradition. Chandler, as a half-English, half-American guy, was very interested in chivalry, and this idea in chivalry that your tenderness, your vulnerability is what sends you out defending people. I feel that way — I think there [are] a lot of guys locked up in jail who feel like they were doing the right thing. And they’re locked up in jails [for good reason], but they felt they were defending some kind of principle. What saves guys like Marlowe and Randy is that usually they’re not defending a principle so much as they’re defending a person they care about.
In an interview with the Pittsburgh-Tribune you described a story as “a world out of balance.” What did you mean by that?
Within this decade in which I tried to undo all my literary training and really learn how to tell a story, I realized that a story is about the world being fucked up. It’s as simple as that. A story’s about a fight, a story’s about a disaster. . . . If you don’t see the world as unjust or unfair or unbalanced, then you don’t have anything to do but sit in your room. That’s one of the reasons that I couldn’t write a book about recovery from alcoholism. If you’re really recovering from alcoholism it defeats the narrative impulse, because what you’re really doing is accepting the world the way it is. I don’t know how you can write a story in which the protagonist accepts the world the way it is. That just doesn’t work. One of the reasons I was having such a hard time writing a book about recovery was that at a certain point my characters got better. And once they got better the story ended.
What I figured out with Randy is that you could have a character who was on what they call a dry drunk, and he could be very angry. In some ways that was a stance in a recovering alcoholic that in my own messed up way I admired. Randy’s going, “It’s not okay with me that my friend died, and you guys aren’t right for accepting that. I don’t accept that.” I think in some ways that’s a heroic stance.
What did you learn from retyping mystery novels? Why is retyping different from reading?
I thought that I had invented this, and then when I started to admit to people that I was retyping novels I found out that it’s something writers have been doing for a long time. In fact, I heard two or three other stories about people re-typing The Long Goodbye.
. . . What it did was it got me on the other side of my own bullshit analytical impulses. I wasn’t just telling myself what the sentences were doing. I was really experiencing in a slowed-down way what the sentences were doing. Particularly with Chandler, it was interesting. With Chandler I really got in touch with all the ways that he wasn’t a good writer. One of the things you learn is that if you can get that narrative thrust going pretty well, a lot of your sins are forgiven.
You mentioned a lot of mystery novel influences for The Next Right Thing. Are there non-mystery novel influences for the novel?
There’s a book called Jamesland by Michelle Hunevan, I think maybe it was published five or ten years ago. I just can’t stop talking about that novel. She’s become a friend of mine because I basically stalked her. It gave me this model of how to write about contemporary people, particularly contemporary people in community. She made that vivid to me. Sometimes when I read a novel — and these are good novels, I’m not criticizing these novels — it feels like I’m reading about nineteenth century characters [fitted] into a twenty-first century context. The novel is such a nineteenth, early twentieth century form. Michelle’s book just became so contemporary to me and so vivid.
Another book that had a huge impact on me, that I read in the middle of the composition of this book, was A Visit From The Goon Squad. I really felt like I was reading about people I would run into on the street. It was so thrilling to read a novel that felt contemporary. Novels don’t always feel contemporary to me; they feel like they’ve come in from another age.
I wonder how television and movies have changed the way the novels are written, if their entertainment value pushes literary fiction into thinking it has to do something other than entertain us — edify us, say.
I hope you don’t feel that way. I tell my graduate students, “If you’re trying to edify me, don’t waste your time.” I always go back to the poet Frank O’Hara in his own defense of poetry. He basically said, “If a poem’s not better than the movies, don’t read it.” I feel that way about fiction. You don’t have to make a case for fiction, you just have to make great fiction.
We make it possible for people to write bad books because we’re willing to read bad books. A lot of times I’ll read a book and I’ll think, My culture wants me to think this is a wonderful experience. I feel like the kid with the emperor’s new clothes. It’s just not that compelling to me. I’d rather be watching Game of Thrones.
How did you establish the comic voice in the novel?
I’d love to sound really smart about this. I thought a lot about what’s funny to me in fiction, and I’ve read a lot funny books. I typed up chapters from How I Became A Famous Novelist because that novel made me laugh out loud. I typed up a couple of chapters to see if I could figure out what this guy was doing. But all that being said, what I basically did was channel my friend Bill’s voice. I have this friend, Bill, in Southern California. I’ve been friends with him for 25 years. I just always have time to listen to his stories. He always cracks me up. At one point, when I was writing the novel, I thought, I need a voice like Bill’s. So I pretended I was Bill!
How does Bill feel about that?
He told me, “I’m gonna wait till you make a lot of money before I sue you.” It wasn’t only a matter of understanding why he was funny, it was pretending to be him. He’s not the character — he’s very far from the character — but I kind of channeled a certain way of talking about things that, as we talked about earlier, was sort of tough and tender.
Did you crack yourself up while you were writing?
No. I’m just so grateful that people think it’s funny. I thought I was failing miserably. I don’t crack myself up, but I’ll tell you that I cry a lot.
Oh, yeah. Every time I read the last two pages. I’ve revised this thing, like, seven hundred times. But every time I read the last couple of pages where Randy is summing up what he’s learned from his story and what he thinks about his friends and how he feels about what’s happened to him, I always cry. It’s ridiculous to be moved by something that you wrote yourself, but in my own life I feel so privileged to have had the friends that I’ve had, and I know Randy feels that way — that he’s been really privileged to know these people.
Have you thought about turning this novel into a series?
That’s just all I want to do in the world, continue to write about these guys. One of the things that people who aren’t novelists don’t know about being a novelist is that it’s such a joy and a comfort to know what you’re going to be doing for the next three or four years. Even with all the uncertainty about publication and sales and as horrible as that is, to just get up every day and say, I know who these people are and I’m going to go spend time with them, it’s just a comfort; a deep, deep comfort. I am so envious of people like Robert B. Parker and Raymond Chandler who kept coming back to characters and situations that they must have loved. I would dearly love to do that.