In the 15 years between his first and second novels, Butler English Professor Dan Barden figured out how to write “a much more vivid, crowd-pleasing, genre-driven, exciting book.” And he’s thrilled.
The Next Right Thing ($26, Random House, on sale March 6) tells the story of Randy Chalmers, an ex-police officer who investigates the mysterious death of his best friend, lawyer and Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Terry Elias. Barden calls it “a hybrid of a crime novel and a thoughtful, character-driven book about a community of men.”
After publishing John Wayne: A Novel in 1997, Barden decided it was time “to figure out how to write the kind of novel that I wanted to write.” During those years, he wrote three or four books that didn’t live up to his new standards. One took five years.
Barden grew up loving the crime novels of Robert B. Parker and Raymond Chandler. And he was blown away by relative newcomers like Charlie Huston and Lee Child.
“In their books, every chapter turns on a dime, every chapter leaves you hungry for the next chapter,” Barden said.
He wanted to create a similar kind of character-driven page-turner where the excitement and intensity of the story mattered just as much as the quality of the sentences.
“So it doesn’t surprise me,” he said, “that it took me more than a decade to figure out how to do this.”
What Barden was able to get across in The Next Right Thing, he said, is the depth and authenticity of characters who get sober through AA. Barden knows something about this; he hasn’t had a drink in 26 years.
“I haven’t seen a lot of great books about recovery from alcoholism,” he said. “There are lots of great books about drunks, but not about recovery.”
And in mining that subject matter, “I think I’ve found a story and a group of characters in which I can talk about spiritual experiences and still use profanity as much as I want,” he said with a smile.
Reaction so far has been positive. Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, said: “Everything you could hope for from a novel: The Next Right Thing is suspenseful, hilarious, angry—above all, wildly original. I only wish I’d written it myself.”
Barden, who’s taught at Butler since 2000, said he drafted The Next Right Thing numerous times over five years. But he knew he was on the right track because “every time I read the last pages, I cry. It still moves me that Randy feels this way about his friends and that he has this complicated but heartfelt understanding of God.”
Now Barden hopes that what he’s written is the first in a series. He’s working on a new book with the same characters in a similar location.
“I love being inside Randy’s head,” he said. “And I really like these guys he hangs out with.”