Tuesday, January 30, 2018
"I Just Do Favors For Friends": Eight Million Ways to Die
A reader has asked me what I think of Lawrence Block, especially his Matthew Scudder novels. I'm always glad to get suggestions of topics you who are kind enough to follow the blog would like to hear about, so, here goes--but with a caveat. I'm not going to talk about all of the Scudder books, but focus on one, Eight Million Ways to Die (1982). You'll see why in a minute.
Twenty-one years ago tonight I was not yet sober. But I was slowly beginning to realize that things were sliding out of control, and signposts were beginning to break through my denial. One of the first signposts was a friend giving me a paperback of Eight Million Ways to Die, the novel in which retired cop turned (unlicensed) private eye Matt Scudder runs out of places to run from his alcoholism, and must face it or die.
Even as he's falling apart, he gets a difficult new case--a young prostitute named Kim asks him to help her out of the life, he seemingly succeeds with her pimp, only for Kim to turn up dead mere days later. The pimp, a cultured African-American known as "Chance,” hires Scudder to solve the crime. Scudder digs in with all his usual tenacity, but his addiction is crippling him, as he floats from AA meeting to bar, to hospital. Scudder takes Chance's mooney, unsure if he's being paid by Kim's killer. The two develop a genuine rapport, and Scudder, stubborn even as his own body is betraying him, pursues her killer.
The depiction of AA meetings is moving and reminds me of rooms I have been in over the past 20 years. Matt's silence and fear brings back my own earliest days, sitting behind a pillar that no longer exists in a building since torn down, peeping around the solid object to see the speaker. I have not been brave often in my life. Going down those well-remembered stairs for the first time required, quite possibly, the only genuine courage I have ever shown.
So I can't be objective about this well-loved book. All of the things that Scudder is forced to face in himself--the acceptance as routine things he would have once perceived as calamities--blackouts, waking up in a hospital, and sneaking out as the afternoon shadows lengthened--Matt Scudder helped me see where I was heading.
Years later, I wrote Lawrence Block an email telling him some of this, asking if I could bring to a book signing for his last (to date) Scudder novel the hardcover of Eight Million Ways to Die I had snatched up when I found it. His reply was extraordinarily kind, and ended with an instruction: make sure I made myself known to him when he signed the book. I did so, and he didn't just sign it, he inscribed it with warm words of encouragement.
So, not objective.
But the novel is awfully good.
Block uses New York City skillfully, mixing real places with fictitious--you could, if you wanted, follow Scudder's odyssey through the City, and many of the places were ones I knew when I lived in Manhattan. Its denizens are cruel and kind, sometimes both in the same scene. Scudder's people, like Smiley's are almost all alike victims and villains, hunter and hunted.
If Kim doesn't get enough time to become fully realized, her fellow "employees" of Chance do, and Chance himself grows through the novel, turning from an exploiter in denial of his exploitation into a young man who has a conscience, and needs to find his true self.
The plotting is taut and well-crafted, and Block mixes dark comedy in with the noir palette and tragic glimpses into shattered lives.
The Scudder novels are all good, but this one is the hinge on which the series turns from first rate genre fiction into literature (mind you, A Stab in the Dark begins that movement).
The alcoholic PI is a staple of genre fiction, but none has been so deeply psychologically fleshed out, so thoroughly believable, in his flaws and virtues, as Matt Scudder.
"I just do favors for friends," Scudder says when asked about his fee structure in Jimmy Armstrong's bar (where I used to eat, and a close friend was a bartender). Scudder did me one hell of a favor when I met him, so this is the least objective of reviews, as I said at the beginning of this post.
Still. The book is great, the series is cumulatively superb. A New York treasure.