Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Step by Step: A Pedestrian Memoir

Anyone calling himself a serious mystery fan probably owns at least a handful of Lawrence Block books. Block is best known for his Matt Scudder series, of course, but he has also had success with a mystery series featuring burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. This time around, though, Block offers a memoir focusing on his years of as a competitive racewalker (competitive only in the sense that Block competed against himself to improve his own previous distance and time records).

While many of Block’s readers will have used running and walking as favored forms of exercise, few of them are likely to have taken those sports to the level described in Step by Step: A Pedestrian Memoir. Shortly after he gave up drinking, Block surprised himself by taking up jogging as an outlet but he soon concluded that jogging just for the sake of jogging made little sense to him. Rather, he came to feel that he was in training for something specific: a race against the clock and himself. In 1981, well into his forties and by then having switched from running to racewalking, Block finished 40 races, five marathons among them.

Then he stopped – and for 22 years he did not enter another race. But, living in New York, Block never completely stopped walking and he even devotes a portion of Step by Step to the three months in 1991 he spent on the 650-mile pilgrimage over the Spanish Pyrenees he shared with his wife. Block is a compulsive man, and when he took up racewalking again after the turn of the century he picked up right where he left off two decades earlier – and then some. No longer content with a mere handful of marathons per year, he was soon competing in “ultras,” races of at least 24-hour duration during which runners and walkers completed as many miles as possible.

The world of competitive racewalking Block describes is an interesting one, and anyone familiar with “fun runs” will easily identify with the aches and pains he has to overcome in order to get himself to so many starting lines. However, the most memorable part of the book is Block’s frank take on his reaction to the aging process when, try as he might, he could no longer set “personal bests” in the events he entered. The realization that time would make no exception in his case threw him into a depression so deep that he lost not only the desire to racewalk, but maybe even the desire to write again.

Although Step by Step is autobiographical, it is not long on details, something the more rabid fans of Lawrence Block will regret. No one, however, can quarrel with the frank way that Block describes his addictions, his compulsive personality, and his personal battle with a crippling bout of depression seemingly triggered by the aging process. Lawrence Block has a life’s work to be proud of whether or not he ever writes another word. If he decides to take Matt Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr into a well-earned retirement with him, he can look back in pride. After all, life is a road best covered step by step.

Rated at: 4.0

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