"Step by Step"
Lawrence Block (William Morrow)
The latest book by Lawrence Block, author of more than 60 crime novels, is a memoir; and as he approaches his 71st birthday later this month, the author has been hinting that it could be his last book.
Except for a couple of how-to writing volumes, "Step by Step" is Block's first book of nonfiction, and it is a quirky and curious piece of work.
The author has a little to say about growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., where he walked the city streets because he couldn't seem to learn how to ride a bike. But this is not a book about growing up.
He muses a bit on the subject of marriage, both his great second marriage to Lynne and his failed first one: "To say I drank my way into marriage isn't much of an exaggeration, and it's none at all to say I drank my way out of it." But this is not a book about relationships.
Block delivers glancing blows to a number of other subjects: his struggle with alcoholism and depression; his friendships with fellow writers including Donald Westlake; his writing process; why he refuses to eat pork even though he's a nonobservant Jew. But the book isn't about any of these things either.
Instead, it focuses on his life as a race walker.
Chances are you've never heard of race walkers, although you may well have seen them in training, furiously swinging their arms and scurrying down city sidewalks or country lanes with a goofy, stiff-legged gait. Even if you do know about them, you probably don't care; and Block's book isn't likely to change that.
But it won't matter. Block's droll humour, stylish prose and ability to spin a yarn will draw you into, and all the way through, this wise and charming book.
He describes himself as a man of intense but fleeting passions - hence his decision to visit every place in the United States with the word "Buffalo" in its name, a quest he gave up after number 84. He took up competitive race walking in 1981 after running five marathons in one year took a toll on his knees.
Race walking is a competitive sport with a number of different events, from 5k races to 26.2-mile marathons to 24- and even 48-hour endurance tests in which the idea is to see how far you can go in the allotted time. Block mostly competed against himself, hoping to better previous times or distances. He reached a milestone when he walked his age in miles the year he turned 68.
He fills his book with details about training, race schedules and results, but it quickly becomes clear that this book is about more than that.
"Because," Block writes, "it's the walking that's important, not the time, not the distance. Not the medals, not the trophies."
Race walking, after all, is about putting one foot in front of the other, about pressing on toward a goal when you can think of a dozen good reasons why you should stop. That is a better metaphor than most for the race of life, for doing what you need to do to get through a bad marriage, deal with depression, or find a way to meet that looming deadline for the next novel.
If this is Block's last book, his fans will miss unlicensed private investigator Matthew Scudder, gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr and the hit man known only as Keller. But we can be thankful for the hours of pleasure he's given us, and for this last chance to walk with him, step by step, and listen to him ramble in his great storytelling voice.
Still, it's hard to believe that a man who has always loved telling stories can simply give it up. Perhaps, after a lifelong marathon of 60 books, Block just needs a breather.
"Step by Step"