Several years ago Lawrence Block, author of over 60 mystery
novels, told me that he could write a cookbook and it would
probably be shelved in the mystery section of bookstores. As a
novelist for the past half-century, Block has created some of the
greatest mystery series of all time --- from the dark stories
involving alcoholic private eye Matt Scudder to the lighter
mysteries featuring burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr to the
stamp-collecting hit man known as Keller.
But now he has written a memoir that deserves to join his
mysteries on the bestseller list, if not the mystery shelf. STEP BY
STEP is a memoir, not of the writing life, but of the walking life.
It is also the story of an intellectually honest and adventurous
man who has struggled to overcome his demons and excel in living.
Unlike many recent memoirs, this is not a book about victimization;
it is about living a life to the fullest.
Both the journalist and novelist have some personal cover while
practicing their craft. The reporter can take refuge behind facts;
the novelist behind his imagination. And readers of the latter can
discover the writer’s voice in his or her style or tone. They
can also strive to get glimpses of the author through his
characters or the settings in which they exist. At the end of the
day, it is, after all, fiction, and any resemblance to those living
or dead is, as they say in the movies, purely coincidental. But
real life is rarely so simple.
STEP BY STEP is written in the same conversational, graceful
style that has made Block the ideal writer to study for those
interested in learning the craft. Indeed, his only nonfiction
titles before this one were four instructional books for writers,
two of them gleaned from his work for many years as the fiction
columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine.
So how do you write a memoir about walking? Well, this
isn’t exactly strolling down to the grocery store for a
six-pack of beer and newspaper, which I have practiced for many
years and am very good at. Much of this book involves racewalking.
That is the rather odd-looking sport that definitely is not
running. It consists of the stiff knee, leg in constant contact
with mother earth, arms swinging at the sides, a sort of rapid
propulsion forward. As the Supreme Court once said of pornography,
you would know it when you see it.
And Block excelled at it. In 2006, at the age of 68, he competed
in 18 races, including six marathons and two 24-hour races,
covering a total of 375 miles. Between 2005 and 2007, he took part
in 52 races, including 11 marathons and seven “ultras.”
We learn that ultras are races that can go for 24 hours or even
days and cover hundreds of miles. Block covered 70 miles in one
Indeed, we meet in these pages many highly motivated athletes
who take part in the sport. If you walk 100 miles in 24 hours, you
become a Centurion. If I did it, I would become a corpse. But to
each his own.
Block traces his enthusiasm for walking back to his early years
growing up in Buffalo, New York, and his inability to learn how to
ride a bike at the age of 10. A boy in Buffalo had to have a bike
to get around. So Block started walking instead and grew to love
it. He knew early on he wanted to be a writer. And he settled in
New York City’s Greenwich Village to do it in the late
’50s. And while all New Yorkers walk as a matter of everyday
necessity and pride, Block had no idea what racewalking was for 21
years. Then after drinking himself out of his first marriage, he
walked up to Washington Square Park one day and just took off
“I did this in street clothes --- jeans, a long sleeved
sports shirt, a pair of leather dress shoes,” he writes.
“God knows what I looked like. People probably thought
I’d stolen something, or perhaps killed someone, and was
trying to escape. But they left me alone. It was New York, after
all, and why interfere?”
Yet another reason to love New York.
Block began seriously jogging. But the point of jogging is
training. And you train for races. For four years, he entered
races. He started as a traditional runner until he hurt his knee
and became a racewalker. In 1981, at the age of 43, he entered and
finished 40 races, including five marathons, covering 374.5
Then he decided one day that he was “finished” with
racing and did not compete for another 22 years. But he was not
exactly through walking. In 1991, he and his wife, Lynne, took part
in a three-month, 650-mile pilgrimage over the Spanish Pyrenees ---
the Camino de Santiago. They did not make the pilgrimage for
religious reasons. But Block points out, “There was something
transformational in covering vast distances, true geographic
expanses, on foot. Who looks at the map of Spain and sees a country
it would be possible to walk across? And yet by the time we were
done we had done precisely that, one day at a time, one precious
step at a time.”
What makes this a fun read is the voice of Lawrence Block:
witty, acerbic at times, inquisitive and, above all, honest. He
writes, “My life, too, has been rich and satisfying, but it
hasn’t stayed the same over the years. Enthusiasm has come
and gone, passions have waxed and waned.” His passions could
be viewed as compulsions. Block admits that he started his racing
career soon after he stopped drinking and has attended many
“meetings” with “like-minded” people over
the years. Perhaps AA? And he gives Lynne a reason for
participating in a 24-hour marathon in his late 60s: “Given
the choice, I’d rather be hospitalized for exhaustion than
The book takes a poignant turn toward the end as he realizes
that age is slowing him down and racing now involves serious pain
from his feet to his back. And he admits that his fictional
characters might be reaching the end of the line. Publicly, of
late, he has talked about retiring from writing, much to the
chagrin of his long-time fans.
But whether it is in writing or racewalking or life itself,
Block acknowledges that we simply go on, step by step. That simply
understated, redemptive message of hope shines through here.
Lawrence Block does not have to write another mystery novel to
ensure his place in American literature. He long ago earned his
spot in the pantheon. But if STEP BY STEP is a coda of sorts, it
shows one of America’s greatest writers still working at the
top of his game. This is a richly human, wonderful book that will
stay with you for a long time.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 23, 2011