Sometimes nostalgia is a boozy, teary drunk, blathering on about loss, other drunken times, other bottles. And sometimes, it’s a fine stroll down memory lane, leafing through a photo album of your friends and that one perfect summer, a glass of wine in your hand. Block nails it here in the (currently) last of the Matt Scudder series, walking the fine line between fond remembrance and maudlin. He and Mick are closing the pub, Mick with his whiskey, Scudder with his club soda. Looking back, Mick wonders, “could you have gone the other way?” What follows is a well done tale, set during the time Scudder was off the force and doing ‘favors’ out of his hotel residence, and working hard to stay sober, one day at a time.
It begins with Jack Ellery, an old boyhood chum appearing at an AA meeting. “I knew him at a glance. He looked older than he had on the other side of the one-way glass, and there was more in his face than the years alone could account for. There’s no charge for the seats in an AA room, but that’s because you pay for them in advance.”
Jack went the other way until he did time and finally gave up the booze. He’s working the steps, and is wrestling with Step 9, “Make Direct Amends to People whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” Trouble is, when you’ve led a life of crime, some of those you’ve injured might react quite badly to your confessional.
The story is as much Scudder’s as Jack’s, and it’s pure reading pleasure as Scudder recounts their wrestling with the AA steps. One of the most interesting parts of Scudder’s characterization is his relationship with alcohol. Block has almost always avoided the opportunity to have Scudder wallow in self-pity, and instead captures his somewhat resigned determination to stay sober. This time, Block also touches on his anger. Jack knows early sobriety’s a challenge, and is a little unsure about getting in touch with Scudder around his 90-day sobriety mark:
“‘I was a little anxious about calling, ” he said, ‘because I figured you’d make it, but you never know, do you? And how would you feel if you had a slip and here’s this asshole calling to congratulate you on ninety days that you haven’t got? And I said this to my sponsor, and he reminded me I’m not the center of the universe, which never fails to be news to me.'”
Things progress (insert plot spoilers here) and we get a chance to watch Scudder investigate as well as negotiate some of the troubles in his own life. The mystery was satisfying, and Block maintains a nice balance between Scudder’s issues and those of the investigation. Characterization shines as usual, particularly Greg Stillman, Jack’s AA sponsor, and Scooter Williams, pothead and moving man: “His voice trailed off, and I could see him running the question in his mind. He looked to be capable of devoting the next hour to its philosophical implications.” Jan and Jim figure prominently in Scudder’s life as he comes up on a year of sobriety and reflects on the advice not to make any major changes within the year after quitting.
There’s a little bit of wry, gentle humor here, all the more poignant for the melancholy and grief threaded through it. The detective in charge of Jack’s case is doubtful of his potential for success: “So I’d like to clear it,’ he said, ‘because it’s on my plate, and my mother raised me to finish everything.’ He patted his stomach. ‘A lesson I learned all too well. But on the dinner plate of crime, my friend, Jack Ellery is the Brussels sprouts.'”
I had to laugh at a funny running joke about the word ‘sobriquet,’ first started by Danny Boy and carried on by Scudder. It’s the kind of word game I would indulge in, and I just love that Block does it as well. Scudder also shares a similar feeling about a particular flavor of soda pop:
“We drank our orange sodas out of the can. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had one, and decided I was willing to go that long before I had another.”
Then there was a laugh out loud at a New Yorker dig:
“‘I can’t,’ I said. ‘I have to go to Brooklyn.’
‘Really? Were you a bad boy? Are you being punished?'”
Overall, a fabulous read, the best kind of nostalgia where you reflect with a friend and discover something new, something that highlights just a little bit more about their personality and life story, and makes you feel lucky you had the opportunity to share.