Some days a good man can't catch a break. I mean, hell. You’d think, if your Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor died with smack in his arm, people would stop coming after you long enough to mourn. And that’s where you’d be wrong, bucko. Because an ex-cop with an assault jacket can’t leave that happy crappy alone. He has to poke where it hurts. He has to find the truth. And if the truth drives everyone away, well, ain’t nothing comes free in this world.
The best mystery protagonists have some monkey on their backs, and Dan Barden’s Randy Chalmers, is no different. But unlike the noir tradition, Randy cannot hide his self-destruction behind the savoire faire of drink and womanizing. That would blow the AA cool he’s spent eight years building. So his risks become outsized, his death wish exaggerated to the point of rueful comedy. Randy reads like the bastard son of Sam Spade and Brother Bill W.
Barden’s nihilistic, mordantly slapstick novel takes a simple premise, of a man with a question he needs answered, and pushes it as far as it will go. As Randy pursues his quest with relentless aggression, he blinds himself to what everyone else can see: that his demand to know the truth has become a substitute for his addiction. He embodies how disaster begets disaster. Yet we cannot help but respect his single-minded devotion to the mentor he loves.
Because that “once a junkie, always a junkie” bull he’s getting from the cops is no damn good. Randy’s sponsor, Terry Elias, had too much reason to live. He took no shellack of anyone, and he punched through everybody else’s pretenses, so Randy won’t believe he just tossed over fifteen years of sobriety for a syringe full of fake happiness. Come the heck on. Why would the guy who punctured everybody else’s pretenses die wrapped up in his own?
Randy reminds me of that friend we all have, the one where we cover our faces because we can’t believe he just did what he just did, yet we peek through our fingers to see what he’ll do next. You know the guy I mean. The same inappropriate tendencies that tell us to hold him at arm’s length also keep us coming back for more. Randy Chalmers’ very public flame-out is just too funny and charismatic for us to stay away.
Like the best tragedy, Randy has far to fall when he collapses into himself, and he takes a lot of people with him. After nearly beating a perp to death as a Santa Ana patrol cop, and losing his marriage and daugther to the bottle, he struggled his way to the top. He’s now an award-winning home designer, hired by the cream of Laguna Beach society. So when he goes off on a dry drunk, ignoring all the warnings, he becomes almost Sophoclean in his pathos.
In short, Randy Chalmers is a completely awful human being—and we can’t help rooting for him all the way. We want him to survive this horrible death spiral, even though we know he won’t. I can’t recall how long since I last saw a character of such compelling public amorality.
Unfortunately, Barden flinches at the end. After we watch Randy destroy everyone he loves in pursuit of the truth, we get two long, talky chapters in which he explains how he didn’t really lose everything. This concluding reversal suggests Barden couldn’t completely commit to his nihilistic vision. He has to slap a bandage on everything that came before. He did so well right up to that conclusion, that it feels soft for him to salve his character in the denouement.
That limitation notwithstanding, Dan Barden has created a book that isn’t quite like anything else on the market today. I can forgive him a flinch after the risks he took in the story up to that point. A character like this, in an edgy story that mostly doesn’t let us look away, is a rare enough bird to stand out in today’s competitive book space.