Block, Lawrence. Random Walk.

NY: Tor, 1988.

In my view, Lawrence Block is the epitome of the professional writer. He started out in college in the 1950s, writing formula fiction for crime and western pulps and even for confession magazines. He gave erotica a shot, and even science fiction (which he enjoyed reading but found he wasn’t able to write). He moved on to the “slick” magazines and to paperbacks, and then to the hardback market. Since then, he has produced several hundred novels, including the award-winning Matt Scudder mysteries, as well as a number of nonfiction works for the would-be writer and also a couple decades’ worth of magazine columns. And while he’s very well read and has considerable respect for good “literary” fiction, he makes no pretense to doing that sort of thing himself. He writes for a living and always has. Suffering for his art in a garret has never been on his agenda.

Which is why I kept turning back to the title page of this unusual yarn to check that it was indeed by Block. It’s very unlike any of his other stuff.

Guthrie Wagner is a thirty-something bartender in Roseburg, Oregon who is more or less satisfied with his nothing-special life. He has friends, he drinks a little and smokes a lot, and he has an aging car that still runs and a reasonable sum of money in the bank. And then, one day, out of nowhere, he’s taken by the urge to go for a walk. Not just a stroll and then back home for supper, either. He sells his car, gives up his lease, stuffs a change of clothes and a carton of smokes in a small backpack, laces up his Nikes, and sets off down the nearest eastbound two-lane highway. He doesn’t know where he’s going, or why, but he’s going, and that’s apparently enough. A few days later — and he seems to be making an effortless twenty miles a day, to his out-of-shape surprise — a guy in a pickup on a run to buy machine parts stops to offer him a lift. Guthrie politely declines but one thing leads to another and suddenly Jody Ledbetter (who is profane and dissatisfied with his life, but generally easygoing) is walking beside him. Gradually, other walkers join in.

Meanwhile, Sara Duskin, a widowed psychological counselor in Fort Wayne, is going blind, rather suddenly. But it isn’t a tragedy. In fact, losing her eyesight seems to be the trade-off to acquiring a much greater and wide-ranging “visual” sense. It’s also time for her to leave, and her thirteen-year-old son, Thom, seems to be okay with that. And they head west, where they will soon meet up with Guthrie and Jody.

In another meanwhile, there’s Mark Adlon, a self-made real estate millionaire with a wife and two adolescent children he loves, who travels around the Midwest investigating and buying up residential properties. And, in his off time, he kills women. He’s up to nearly sixty now.

As we follow Guthrie and his growing company of not-quite-pilgrims, and Mark and his own peculiar adventures, Block brings in an increasing amount of mystical hippie-dippiness of the sort most Americans in the 21st century would raise at least one weary, cynical, skeptical eyebrow at. And, while an author certainly can’t be automatically identified with the characters he invents and the notions they espouse, it’s pretty difficult to imagine Block personally buying all this kind of thing. Especially not with the degree of enthusiasm his creations show for it. Well, he did subtitle this book “A Novel for the New Age.”

As always in a Block novel, there’s some terrific dialogue and the characters are very nicely and multidimensionally developed. And his meandering descriptions of travel through the upper Mountain States are interesting in themselves. The plot is something else again — and I can’t say I agree even in the slightest degree with what eventually happens to Mark the Serial Killer, especially since all the other characters go along with it. I think I’ll just chalk this one up to a passing episode of “middle age crazy” on Block’s part.

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