Friday, May 27, 2011

Matthew Scudder is back

I wrote last week about how impressed I was by Lester Dent's achievement in Honey in His Mouth of writing a good crime novel built around a fencepost-dumb protagonist. Today, I'm marveling at an even more impressive achievement, this one by Lawrence Block: his new Matthew Scudder book, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, is a crime novel that derives nearly all of its suspense, not from the crime under investigation, but from its protagonist's day-by-day, minute-by-minute struggle to keep from drinking. And it works: the book is completely gripping, as through page after page you alternate between dread and relief, pulled on by the palpable force of Scudder's will even as you (and he) worry that it may not be enough.

Ed Park's review of the book for Time is a good place to go for more; he does a nice job of setting the novel in context of the rest of Block's Scudder books, in which alcohol--and, in the past several novels, recovery--has always played a large part. I think it was from Scudder, rather than from any afterschool special, that I got my first sense of how powerful addiction could be, and how the struggle to overcome it could never quite be definitively won. But none of the novels until this one have focused so relentlessly on that struggle, and it's a testament to Block's writing, and more to his narrative voice as Scudder, that he makes it so compelling. Scudder sits with a Coke as informants drink, and he catches a whiff of whiskey; he walks to fill time he would once have spent drinking; he calls his sponsor at all hours and gets the sort of advice that is familiar to us from Bubbles's struggles on The Wire or David Foster Wallace's brilliant analysis in Infinite Jest, advice that is so simple, so basic, so no-nonsense that it ought not to work--and yet somehow does.

All that should make for a novel that is relentlessly grim, but that's not the case; in fact, A Drop of the Hard Stuff is also a lot of fun--even in extremis Scudder is a gentle ironist at heart, and the book full of the usual Block touches, the humor and observations and asides that make it obvious how he and Donald Westlake could be great friends. My favorite is this playful exchange between Scudder and an informant:
He was frowning in concentration. "Jack, Jack, Jack. Did he have a sobriquet?"

"A what?"

"A nickname, for Christ's sake. And don't tell me you didn't know the word."

"I knew it," I said. "I've come across it in print, but I'm not sure I ever heard anyone say it before. I certainly never heard anyone say it in Poogan's"

"It's a perfectly fine word. And it's not exactly the same as a nickname. Take Charles Lindbergh. His nickname was Lindy--"

"As in hop," I suggested.

"--and his sobriquet was the Lone Eagle. George Herman Ruth, nickname was Babe, sobriquet was the Sultan of Swat. Al Capone--"

"I get the idea."

"I just wanted to keep on saying it, Matthew. Sobriquet. I know it from reading, and I don't think I ever heard it before, and I know for certain I never said it before. I wonder if I'm pronouncing it correctly."

"I'm the wrong person to ask."

"I'll look it up," he said, and he picked up his glass and put it down without drinking. "Hi-Low Jack," he said. "Wasn't that his fucking sobriquet? Isn't that what they called him?"
And just like that, digression is folded back into plot, and Scudder is off on his quest.

Block is a treasure, and the fact that he's still turning out good novels--novels that show that he remains engaged and interested in his craft--is something to celebrate. It's good to have Matt Scudder back.

No comments:

Post a Comment