THE NEXT RIGHT THING takes its name from the Alcoholics Anonymous belief that at any given point, the next thing that one should do is the next right thing. It is taken from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous statement: In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing. Randy Chalmers, the narrator, asks an interesting question in response: What do you do when you don’t know what the next right thing is? It is the question that propels the plot, an investigation into not so much the “how” or the “who” but rather the “why” of an untimely and tragic death.
"[T]he characters and situations seem to be drawn from right out of the real world. Dan Barden’s debut is worth reading for that reason alone."
Chalmers is an ex-cop, current home designer, and recovering alcoholic in progress. While he has forsaken alcohol, his underlying personality remains; for better or worse, it’s what drives him when his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor is found dead as the result of a heroin overdose. Terry Elias was also Chalmers’ best friend and attorney; his death after years of sobriety literally rocks Chalmers’ world. He is unable to believe that his friend, confidante and example would return to drug use, and begins an unofficial (and unwelcome) investigation into this sudden demise. Chalmers’ quest almost immediately begins to uncover a series of startling revelations, not only regarding Ellis but also concerning others in Chalmers’ circle of acquaintances.The more he discovers, though, the more he doubts the cause of Ellis’ death. Ellis, Chalmers learns, was on the verge of having literally everything he ever wanted. Chalmers’ investigation is hampered to some degree by his relationship with his ex-wife, who is determined to keep him from sharing custody of their teenage daughter.
At the same time, Chalmers is approached by a young man who regards him as an “A.A. legend” and wants him to be his A.A. sponsor, despite a rather auspicious initial meeting between the two. Chalmers maintains sobriety, but his past sins and his present circumstances are on a collision course that he may not be able to walk away from. Though on a quest for the truth, he may not be able to ultimately accept it when he does find it. His ability to do so depends on whether or not he will keep or lose everything that he has gained.
THE NEXT RIGHT THING is a mystery, but it is ultimately more of a character study. Readers who have had problems with alcohol or are intimately familiar with others so afflicted will find the characters fascinating in their familiarity. These are not so much stereotypes as archetypes; there are patterns to those of us who have once too often stared into the abyss at the bottom of a bottle and one day found themselves not liking what they saw reflected back at them. Those exclusively seeking a mystery may not find enough focus on whodunit elements to consider the book entirely satisfying, but the characters and situations seem to be drawn from right out of the real world. Dan Barden’s debut is worth reading for that reason alone.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 22, 2012