With The Next Right Thing, author Dan Barden mixes up a cocktail of grit and sentimentality infused with mystery, humor, A.A. philosophy and several drops of California sunshine.

This is Barden’s second novel, following 1997’s John Wayne, and he gives his readers a complex protagonist in Randy Chalmers, former cop and alcoholic turned home designer and sober A.A. meeting attendee. Having sipped his last alcoholic drink eight years ago, Randy lives a comfortable existence in Laguna Beach with his also-sober yoga-instructor girlfriend, MP. But underneath Randy’s chill exterior and his life of espresso drinking amid lovely walnut furniture, there exists a simmering rage. And when tragedy occurs, that rage emerges as if it had never left.

The tragedy in this tale is the shocking death of Randy’s A.A. sponsor and best friend, Terry Elias. Years ago, Terry helped save Randy’s life when it seemed unsalvageable. Not only did he help Randy get sober, he encouraged him in his career turnaround after he was kicked off the police force for savagely beating a suspect. Terry was brother, father and mentor to Randy, all rolled up into one. And now he is dead—found in a hotel room, victim of an apparent heroin overdose a good 15 years after going sober. How could this be?

To Randy, it seems clear that there was foul play involved. And years after leaving the force, he slips back into his cop persona as he sets out to uncover what could have happened to his friend. Will he be able to accept the final answer? And can he avoid a relapse now that his first real link to the sober world is gone?

Randy’s journey is an absorbing one, peppered with an eclectic mix of supporting characters including his hapless friend (and fellow A.A. member) Wade; glamorous lesbian sister, Betsy; angry ex-wife, Jean; and precocious, beloved teenage daughter, Allison (aka Crash). Told in both present time and a series of flashbacks, the plot moves swiftly and keeps the reader interested in the outcome, even as the sometimes corny dialogue may lead to an eye-roll or two.

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