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The race to the finish line

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In the mystery world, Lawrence Block needs no introduction. His Matthew Scudder novels, at their best, illuminate one man's journey away from the bottle toward redemption by helping others in their worst hours. The Bernie Rhodenbarr series is written with the light touch and sleight of hand of its burgling antihero, while Hard Case Crime has made an annual sport of highlighting early gems, such as "Grifter's Game" and "Killing Castro," from his pulp-writing days when he started a half-century ago. And tutorial guides such as "Telling Lies for Fun and Profit" have helped countless aspiring writers figure out how to proceed from plot to print.

But when I met with Block, once Grandmaster of Mystery Writers of America and winner of awards too numerous to recount here, for a late lunch last month near New York's Union Square, the topic at hand was a sharp change-up even from the multi-varied pitch count that has been his career. "Step by Step" (William Morrow: 365 pp., $24.99) is his first and only published memoir, an intriguing curiosity that, on the surface, has less to do with his professional career and more to do with what he described as "a year in the life of an aging and not particularly talented racewalker."

At least, that's what Block set out to accomplish, what with his rediscovery of the oft-misunderstood sport ("there was something amusing at first glance about that hip-wiggling form") in 2003, 22 years after leaving his initial obsession behind. We're with him -- forgive the pun -- every step of his races, wincing when his foot spasms in pain after a multi-hour exercise, traveling to the most far-flung places in the country in search of the latest competition, noting the fluctuating times and wearing the free hats and T-shirts given out as consolation prizes. But "Step by Step" is a more complicated beast.

For one thing, Block realized the extent to which walking applied to his life -- "ever since crawling" -- and ended up delving a great deal into his early childhood, growing up in a Reform Jewish household in Buffalo where, in one of the book's most curious moments, ham and bacon were culinary staples but pork chops were strictly verboten. Block's upbringing stands in contrast to his current relationship to Judaism ("it's never dictated my social circle, choice of friends or much in the way of activity") and lends a certain irony to one of the book's funnier moments, when he and his wife of 26 years, Lynne, are cut off on an icy stretch of highway in northern New Mexico: " 'Oy, gottenu!' cried the pride of St. Elizabeth's. While the boy from Beth Zion said not a word while making the sign of the cross."

For another, Block gives as much weight to racewalking and his formative years as to his penchant for traveling the globe. Whether it's visiting as many towns named Buffalo as possible, retracing the steps of an ancient pilgrimage over the Pyrenees to the city of Santiago de Compostela, or staying in budget accommodations while preparing for a morning race, Block writes as if he'd be at home in the pages of Travel & Leisure or like-minded magazines.

The cumulative result is something akin to an antimemoir. "There's not a lot of angst-ridden verbiage," he admitted, when asked to compare the book with more famously outsized efforts by those much younger. It's also not his first time trying his hand at the form, but that earlier attempt, begun in the mid-'90s, remains incomplete. "That memoir was about the early years, about writing pseudonymous books and getting into the writing business," Block explained. "I hadn't planned to work on it, but I was stuck at [a writing retreat] and had to work on something." The book was under contract, but eventually Block returned the advance to his then- and current publisher, William Morrow. "I was 55, 56 years old when I started working on [the memoir], and it felt early for me to be doing this. Also, I think I was probably guarded in a way I wouldn't be now. I remember one point my mother made when she was younger than I am now, seventy-one, that one good thing about getting older is that every year there are a few more things I just don't give a [damn] about."

"Step by Step" ends in midstride, "and that," Block writes, "it seems to me, is how it should be." But it turns out that he's stopped racewalking entirely. "It's unsettling," he said, preparing to go out on last month's abbreviated book tour, "having gained a great deal of weight and having gotten quite out of shape." And while Block didn't rule out a return to the sport he's written so enthrallingly about, "I find myself increasingly drawn to pursuits that don't require leaving the house or doing much of anything. I find Netflix a perfectly acceptable substitute for most of the activity that kept me going."

It sounds like low-grade depression, a condition Block dances around in the book, but he attributed his laissez-faire attitude more to age. "As much as one is inclined to muster up a lot of denial on the subject, I think it's real. There are lots of things I have less enthusiasm for than I used to; writing is one of them." Or, more accurately, Block's lack of enthusiasm is for novels, as he expressed enjoyment for a recent screenplay adaptation of Scudder series entry "A Ticket to the Boneyard" as well as for some short fiction. He's also mulling over completing that unfinished memoir.

Such talk had me wondering whether Block gives much thought to his future legacy, and whether his presumably voluminous manuscript archives might show up in an educational institution to be determined later. "I don't care a whole lot, I don't think," he said. "I can conjure up any number of scenarios for life after death. But one I cannot imagine for a moment is lying around on a cloud somewhere and wasting a lot of time caring whether people are reading your book on a planet you've long since left behind. I don't think I care. You know, as one gets closer to the end, people seem to find themselves caring about their legacy. I've tried not to delude myself that this stuff will last. I don't think it will. What's odd, though, is that genre fiction lasts much longer than anything else. Writers don't realize this. They think they have to write serious literature to make a mark on the ages, but most bestselling mainstream novels are forgotten during the author's lifetime."

Is it because crime fiction offers a unique window on the world? "It's simpler than that; I think it's entertaining. Not just of its time, because that's true not just of the critically acclaimed like Chandler and Hammett, but true down the line. Agatha Christie has never been out of print for more than 20 minutes. When all is said and done, people would just as soon have a good time."

Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at www.sarahweinman.com. Dark Passages appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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