Monday, June 22, 2009

Book: Step by Step, by Lawrence Block (2009)

This is an odd book, and Lawrence Block lets you know that in the subtitle A Pedestrian Memoir. Not that it’s going to be commonplace; Block is incapable of producing a dull piece of writing. But it’s about walking. Specifically racewalking. Except when it’s not.

It’s a curiously reticent autobiography. Block begins an extended section on a trip during which he and his wife traced an ancient pilgrimage route by saying “it’s difficult for me to write about the Spanish walk.” He says that he writes fiction so he won’t have to reveal anything of himself directly, and when he does it’s as if he resents the intrusion.

There’s little about his career here save for a section on the creation of his strangest novel, Random Walk (which, to be fair, is about walking) and a few hints that he may not write another book. His focus, in these pages and in his life at present, is on racewalking.

Even that subject gives him pause. His concern about a book on it is “that no one but family members and indulgent friends would have much interest in reading it.” I can understand his fear. Initially, reading Step by Step reminded me of conversations I’ve had with friends after they pick up a new hobby. They do all the talking, laced with terms I don’t know and references to friends I’ve never met, and after a few moments I’m lost. (This is why I haven’t picked up a new hobby in ten years.)

But Block’s effortless style and the purity of his obsession won me over. When he explains why he’s prouder of a finish in a marathon event than anything in his entire literary career, I understood. I started to share his enthusiasm. Not enough to lace up my own sneakers, but it’s better than nothing.

Ultimately, this strangely compelling book isn’t about walking but the ebb and flow of interests in life, and how having one keeps you moving forward even when that interest is ... moving forward. Block touches on a few recent incidents that I wish he’d explored in greater detail - like his stint as a TV writer and collaborating on a movie with Wong Kar Wai – but they’re sights that we glimpse as we amble along. It’s maintaining a brisk and steady pace that counts.

For the record, if Mr. Block does decide to publish the memoir of his days in the ‘50s paperback racket that he admits he’s written a few thousand words of, I’ll snap that up at once. I know a few other people who will, too.