Thursday, September 8, 2011

Lawrence Block's A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF

I tend to be a seasonal reader.  I try to read novels in the season in which they are set.  I arrange the books on my to-be-read shelves accordingly, saving beach books and sea stories for July, putting back ghost stories and dark mysteries for fall, waiting until winter to read novels set in the winter.

Lawrence Block's  A Drop of the Hard Stuff (A Matthew Scudder novel) is one for the fall.  It retraces in detail the protagonist's midlife crisis and his recovery from addiction.  I say recovery, but the struggle is always on-going, as readers of the later Scudder books are well aware.  This is a story within a story, a recollection told by an older, wiser Scudder, the detailed past framed briefly fore and aft by an older, wiser consciousness who already knows the rest of the story.

Every novel in the series can stand by itself, but because the characters age and develop, people who have newly discovered the Scudder novels might want to go back and read them in order.  While the early novels place a higher emphasis on action, the later novels place a much higher emphasis on character and reflect Scudder's own sensibilities, and perhaps the author's as well.

At the time of this novel, Scudder is old and happily married, but the story he tells is of his forty-five-year-old self as he nears his one year anniversary of being sober.  To this Scudder, the need for sobriety overwhelms everything else.  He has not yet adequately addressed the melancholy emptiness which made him drink in the first place.  All he can manage now is one day at a time.

His mood matches the season:

"It was getting dark out when I left the library.  I'd lost all track of the time, and when I checked my watch I saw that it was past five.  It wasn't fully dark, but the sun was down, and a gray day was drawing to a close.  Every day the sun disappeared a little earlier than the day before.  There was nothing out of the ordinary about that, it happened every year, but there were times when I felt there was a sadness attached to it, that the poor old year was dying a day at a time."

You might say that, to fill the emptiness, Scudder has traded his addiction for the bottle for an addiction to AA support meetings, which has definitely improved his health and his character.  Against this backdrop, the story of Scudder's love life (or at least, his sex life) develops.  And along with these two plot threads, Block has spun a mystery that unravels a bit at a time.

Just when it seems to be going nowhere, a new thread unravels, and that leads to another.  It is an unconventional mystery that kept me reading and pondering, brooding in sympathy with the protagonist.  People who prefer action mysteries might think it slow, but I think it is one of the best in the series, up there with Eight Million Ways to Die (Matthew Scudder Mystery) and When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (Matthew Scudder Mystery), to which it relates.

I turned the last page exhilarated, both delighted in the understated genius of it and sad to see it end.  Hopefully, there will be even more Scudder novels down the road.

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