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Dustin LindenSmith

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crime fiction review/excerpt by Lawrence Block

The 1992 novel Dance At The Slaughterhouse (amazon.com | amazon.ca), authored by the eminent crime fiction writer Lawrence Block, features his series character Matt Scudder, a recovering alcoholic private eye living in NYC. This was my first Lawrence Block novel, though it certainly won't be my last -- he's an excellent author and Scudder as a character is also great.

Scudder's recovery from alcoholism [and his relationship with his AA sponsor] features prominently in this story. In fact, Scudder hits an AA meeting at least daily or every ten pages in the novel. I paid careful attention to this intriguing character trait, since I've always been interested in how addictions factor into literary characters and how closely those addictions may have been mirrored in the author's own life. (Robert B. Parker's private eye Spenser dances often with a deep love of whiskey, and Parker's police chief detective character Jesse Stone is an outright alcoholic who battles his addiction daily, and usually without success (Jesse Stone's character was first brought to the small screen by Tom Selleck in Stone Cold (and shot on the Nova Scotia coast, actually; B and I ate dinner next to Selleck at a local restaurant last month during filming of the most recent made-for-TV Stone novel)).

With all that in hand and taken with my personal interest in spirituality, the following excerpt from Slaughterhouse really popped out at me. It underlines what for me has been a motivation for my own petty past addictions. In this scene, Scudder is having an all-nighter with an Irish mobster named Mick. Mick has been pounding back the Irish whiskey all night while Scudder has limited himself to Cokes and coffee. After several hours of conversation, they start talking about a sort of aha moment that they've both experienced. A sort of glimpse into the ultimate reality of the universe. And in this case, the experience sounds like some sort of confession on the part of the author. I wonder if I wrote to Lawrence Block he would confirm it for me.
Not long before dawn he said, "Matt, would you say that I'm an alcoholic?"

"Oh, Jesus," I said. "How many years did it take me to say I was one myself? I'm not in a hurry to take anybody else's inventory."

I got up and went to the men's room, and when I came back he said, "God knows I like the drink. It'd be a bad bastard of a world without it."

"It's that kind of world either way."

"Ah, but sometimes this stuff lets you lose sight of it for a while. Or at least it softens the focus." He lifted his glass, gazed into it. "They say you can't stare at an eclipse of the sun with your naked eye. You have to look through a piece of smoked glass to save your vision. Isn't it as dangerous to see life straight on? And don't you need this smoky stuff to make it safe to look at?"

"That's a good way to put it."

"Well, bullshit and poetry, that's the Irish stock in trade. But let me tell you something. Do you what's the best thing about drinking?"

"Nights like this."

"Nights like this, but it's not just the booze makes nights like this. It's one of us drinking and one of us not, and something else I couldn't lay my finger on." He leaned forward and put his elbows on the table. "No," he said, "the best thing about drinking is a certain kind of moment that only happens once in a while. I don't know that it happens for everyone, either. It happens for me on nights when I'm sitting up alone with a glass and a bottle. I'll be drunk but not too drunk, you know, and I'll be looking off into the distance, thinking but not thinking -- do you know what I mean?

"Yes."

"And there'll be a moment when it all comes clear, a moment when I can just about see the whole of it. My mind reaches out and wraps itself around all of creation, and I'm this close to having hold of it. And then" -- he snapped his fingers -- "it's gone. Do you know what I mean?"

"Yes."

"When you drank, did you --"

"Yes," I said. "Once in a while. But do you want to know something? I've had the same thing happen sober."

"Have you now!"

"Yes. Not often, and not at all the first two years or so. But every now and then I'll be sitting in my hotel room with a book, reading a few pages and then looking out the window and thinking about what I've just read, or of something else, or of nothing at all."

"Ah."

"And then I'll have that experience just about as you described it. It's a kind of knowing, isn't it?"

"It is."

"But knowing what? I can't explain it. I always took it for granted it was the booze that allow it to happen, but then it happened sober and I realized it couldn't be that."

"Now you've given me something to think about. I never thought for a moment it could happen sober."

"It can, though. And ait's just as you described it. But I'll tell you something, Mick. When it happens to you sober, and you're seeing it without that piece of smoked glass --"

"Ah."

"--and you have it, you just about have it, and then it's gone." I looked into his eyes. "It can break your heart."

"It will do that," he said. "Drunk or sober, it will break your heart."

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