Robert S. Rosenthal
- Published on Amazon.com
Lawrence Block is best known for his fine detective fiction. I'm not a big fan of the genre, but picked up this book anyway because it promised something different. In the back matter, Block indicated that fans either loved it or hated it, but it remained one of his personal favorites. I was intrigued. I had no idea what lay in store.
The plot line (if you can even call it that) is simple. Bartender Guthrie, prompted by an inner voice, decides to shuck the rather bland and pointless life he's been living and go on walkabout. He literally walks away from his job, his apartment, his car, and his possessions. As he hikes through Oregon with only a day-pack, he gradually gains a following. An assortment of figures join him for reasons they cannot exactly explain. Each walks away from his or her life in exchange for the freedom of a different kind of journey.
Early on, Guthrie meets Sara, a psychotherapist going rapidly blind from some condition unknown to medicine. As her outer vision constricts and finally disappears altogether, however, her inner vision opens wide. She's guided to leave her home in Indiana and travel west (with her 13 year-old son), arriving in a small Oregon town and parking herself at a specific motel a day before Guthrie and his new companion saunter up the road. Sara becomes the group's blind prophetess.
As the growing band of itinerants make their way through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and onward, they find that their walking results in the healing of old medical ailments and addictions. Psychological wounds of all kinds surface in bouts of tears, rage, or emotional paralysis, to be cleared through breathwork. Miracles abound.
But another plot line weaves through that of the beatific walkers. Mark is a rather bland, simple guy--a husband and father--who's made millions by buying up decrepit properties in foreclosure en masse and renting them out for income. And oh yeah, he gets off on killing women. Lots of women. He decides to take the summer off and go on a killing spree. While the walkers make their way slowly eastward on foot, shedding their possessions and guided only by Guthrie's intuition, Mark drives his Lincoln randomly about the Midwest, ostensibly to accumulate more property that he doesn't need, but in truth scouting out women who attract him in order to kill them. The murders are described in graphic, near clinical detail. They are very hard to stomach and would have been unreadable (and a reason to trash the book) were it not for the counterpoint of the walkers. As the walkers numbers swell to over one hundred, Mark's body count rises in tandem.
In this way, the book showcases two models for the accumulation of power, one centered around communality and love, the other lust and fear. The proponents of these models are clearly destined to collide at some point, and indeed they do, with results that might disappoint and even anger some, but which are wholly consistent with the story's central premise. No big twists or surprises here, except for a key insight into the seeds of Mark's murderous passion.
Random Walk cobbles together many tropes of `New Age' thinking--energetic healing, holotropic breathwork, inner voices, vision quests, the principles of A Course in Miracles, even ironically the Mayan 2012 prophecies. These are offered up so matter-of-factly that I can understand why one Amazon reviewer saw the book as a parody. Some miracles are indeed over-the-top (e.g. the perfect weather and the walkers near invisibility to law enforcement). The inner voice thing could have come off as silly if handled by a lesser writer, but Block knows enough to keep it minimal and unobtrusive. And yes, Sara's disquisitions become a bit preachy and tedious at times: too much holistic info-dump. But Random Walk is not parody. The characters are too real, too serious. And Block's metaphysical knowledge runs too deep. (He quotes directly from A Course in Miracles in at least one instance and paraphrases it several more times.) More significantly, the emotions sparked by the twin story lines are too raw, too heartfelt to be satirical. There's real conviction here and I found it both compelling and moving.
This is not really a novel in any conventional sense of the word. There is no conflict apart from the juxtaposition of good and evil. There is no true protagonist. The characters do grow, but only in service to the overarching theme and not as a result of their interactions at the level of personality. No, the book is better regarded as an extended parable, a modern day Bible story. Think Exodus, (Sara mentions the burning bush) with the Hebrews freed from their oppression in Egypt and wandering on foot through the wilderness toward some Promised Land as yet unknown to them, guided by divine providence in the figure of Moses. In this sense, like Exodus, Random Walk recounts a spiritual journey. (I admit my bias here: I did after all write a book, From Plagues to Miracles: The Transformational Journey of Exodus, from the Slavery of Ego to the Promised Land of Spirit, that views Exodus as a roadmap for the spiritual journey.) Random Walk is also a cautionary tale about the dangers facing humankind, and an inspiring portrait of the nature of true healing, how it has no limits except those we impose on ourselves by our own blinkered systems of belief.
If you're skeptical of all phenomena that can't be neatly measured and reproduced in a lab, or if you find the idea of a spiritual reality beyond the realm of the five senses to be anathema, then Random Walk is not a book for you. Pass it by. But if you have felt the tug of unseen guidance in your life, if you've had miraculous encounters that can't be explained by so-called rational means, if you know in your heart that there must be a better way--then drop whatever you're doing and start walking. Join the journey. Read this little treasure of a book.