Dan Barden has written a great little novel here, but not in the way you might think. The Next Right Thing is the story of ex-cop Randy Chalmers and the death of Terry Elias, his AA sponsor. But before I get too carried away with telling you what the novel does right, let me get two things off my chest.
First—and this is a minor one, but it bothered me to no end—there is a scene where Randy needs some information and the easiest way to get it would be to pretend to be a cop. He should be good at that because he was a cop, right? But he chooses not to do that because, according to Randy (and Barden, I guess), impersonating a police office is a "federal offense."
Let me tell you, it isn't. It's generally regulated by state law, not federal law. Unless you're kidnapping someone and bringing them across state lines or something like that. This is why I can't watch even a single episode of Law & Order—most of it is just made up and tailored to serve the plot.
This throwaway line nearly ruined the novel for me. Yes, that's ridiculous. Yes, I'm ridiculous. That Barden managed to keep me interested after that point is a testament to how entertaining The Next Right Thing is.
Second—and this is a bigger one—Barden sometimes tries too hard with his dialogue. Case in point: "…a******s like you have been stepping on my feet and ramming pencils up my nose since before I knew what feet and pencils were. You've got a big f*****g truck where your soul should be, and you want to drive it over someone, but you can't because it's encased in flesh and you would die if you tried." This line is shouted by a young lady as she tries to stop Randy from assaulting her friend.
Thankfully, dialogue like that only appears occasionally.
By now, you're probably wondering whether you should even read The Next Right Thing. I'm here to tell you that you should. The mystery behind Terry's death is not a simple one with simple answers. Or even satisfying answers. But that's how it should be, I think. When your cast of characters is populated by recovering addicts, no one's motives are pure. Deep down, each of them would like nothing more than to take a drink, score some drugs, or sink back into the hole that they pulled themselves out of by sheer force of will—even if only for one night.
What keeps each character sober is part of the story. It's not an obvious part. It lurks in the background while the action occurs on the page. So I might not buy a lot of things about this novel. I think Barden tries too hard to make Randy a tough guy and doesn't always pull the act off. I don't buy John Sewell—one of Randy's nemeses—as a character at all.
But what I do buy is why Terry Elias died. Barden nails that, and I think that's the whole point of the novel.