Saturday, June 06, 2009

Step by Step by Lawrence Block

Block has long been both one of the most naturalistic plotters in the mystery world and a writer with a keen eye for the contradictory and half-hidden motivations of his characters, so it's an intriguing, eye-opening experience to see him turn his talents to a memoir and to examine his own life and behavior. As it turns out, his natural voice is a lot like that of Keller or Matt Scudder, and Block is as surprised by some of the things he's done as those fictional characters ever were. He uses the word "intuitively" a lot, to describe his life in general, his writing in particular, and specific decisions and periods in his life; and his description of his own life contains a number of comments like this one on page 108:
As of the first of June, I'd no longer have a place to live, or rent to pay. Nor would I have any pressing reason to hunt for a new apartment for the next three months or so. What a perfect opportunity, then to go see something of the country -- and, while I was at it, run across as much of it as possible.
Step by Step is subtitled "A Pedestrian Memoir," and it's at heart a story of Block's walking life. He had a short stint as a runner and marathoner in the early '80s -- as that quote above indicates -- but knee pain ended that after only a few years. Before that, he was a kid born in 1938 who didn't learn to ride a bike until he was fourteen, long after everyone else and long after everyone else's prime bike-riding years. A few years after his marathoning career ended, he took a long pilgrimage in Spain, walking for three months with his wife Lynne. Even later, starting in 2005 and continuing up to the point he finished this book and turned it in, he came back to competition and marathons as a racewalker.

Block has written nonfiction about writing before -- four books, mostly in the '80s, when he was also deeply involved in seminars and a column for Writers' Digest -- but only glancingly talked about his own process and style then. Step by Step isn't a book about writing, except metaphorically -- but it is a book about the life of a writer, covering another aspect of his life that he does compulsively, for reasons he only partially understands, and which is very important to him...though he's given up both at various times.

Block has always kept his professional and personal lives separate; he's talked about many of the surface details of his life, but only very rarely gone into any depth about his emotional life. He goes further here than I've ever seen him, but, still, this is Block presenting one aspect of his life, and he specifically avoids talking about his writing. Step by Step is not a tell-all, thankfully; I don't think Block has it in him to write the modern style of nakedly emotional memoir. (He "express[es] contempt for one such imaginative memoirist, a contempt shared by Oprah Winfrey" on the first page of the book -- though his contempt is specifically for that other memoirist's fabrications, not his honesty.)

The writing has the engaging and wry tone of Block's mature voice, and it's a joy to read. Whether Block is describing his youth, a trek across Spain, or the details of a twenty-four-hour race in Houston, he keeps it all equally interesting, even compelling. It would be very, very easy to take the substance of this book -- a lot of it, particularly towards the end, is taken up with describing in great detail his experiences in specific races over the past four years -- and write a very dull book that only other long-distance racewalkers would care about. Block hasn't done that; the reader gets caught up in his training regimen, the telling details of the different courses, and Block's ambivalent determination to keep going.

Most of all, what makes Step by Step readable is Block's fearlessness: he focuses on a particular aspect of his life, but he looks at that relentlessly, questioning his own motives and continually trying to understand his own motives and drives. Perhaps no man can truly know himself, but Block certainly tries, and that honest, brave, fascinating effort comes across on every page of Step by Step.


Bruce said...

I wonder how much illumination this book would cast on that odd novel of his, RANDOM WALK?

(Caution: if your reaction is like mine to the ending of RANDOM WALK, you might hit one of the cats when you throw the book against a wall.)

Andrew Wheeler said...

Bruce: Block doesn't write much about his career in this book, but he does get into Random Walk for ten pages or so (right about the middle of the book), for obvious reasons.

I remember the ending being a problem, but I've blocked out the particulars -- does that particular person get all warm & fuzzy with everybody else, he asked, trying to be as vague as possible?

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