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Review: A Thousand Steps, by T. Jefferson Parker
Forge, 2022. 368 pp. $28

If you’re into the peace-love-tie-dye scene, with or without the accompanying sex and drugs, Laguna Beach, California, is the place to be in summer 1968. Timothy Leary preaches the beauty of LSD to adoring crowds, and every other person, it seems, has a different mantra of self-enlightenment.

However, sixteen-year-old Matt Anthony watches most of this from the sidelines. He’s too busy trying to put food on the table, because his mother, hooked on opium-laced hashish, can’t. His older brother, Kyle, fighting in Vietnam, worries he won’t make it out alive, and Matt worries too. Their father? He’s a deadbeat, a former cop who mouths off about discipline and keeps promising to visit one day from whatever state he’s just fled to, a lie Matt has heard for seven years.

A Pageant of the Masters tableau vivant of a chess game evoking the battle of Waterloo, 2012. Laguna Beach holds the pageant every summer, and the 1968 edition figures in the novel (courtesy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2F4cZ0Lsao, via Wikimedia Commons)

But just when life could not get worse, Matt’s older sister, Jasmine, has disappeared. At first, he thinks Jazz has merely let loose after graduating high school, but he comes to believe she’s been kidnapped. And since the police assume that Jazz is simply another drug-addled hippie on a bender, it’s up to Matt to rescue her.

How he goes about it makes for a tense, plot-driven thriller, where the ambience feels pitch-perfect. Parker captures Matt’s hand-to-mouth existence, in which he delivers newspapers practically for pennies, fishes off the rocks to get protein, and cadges meals of leftovers from friends who work in restaurant kitchens. He tries to avoid the war between cops and hippies, views anyone over thirty as “old,” and sympathizes with the antiwar protesters who chant, “Hell, no, we won’t go!”

Parker’s careful about social and cultural markers, and Matt immediately sizes up everyone he sees according to the pecking order that places him at or near the bottom, a clever touch. The only glaring false note in this otherwise exacting portrayal is how brother Kyle enlists despite drawing a safe draft lottery number, when the first lottery actually took place in late 1969. To me, overlooking that easily researchable fact suggests a characterization overreach, which I’ll get to in a moment. Otherwise, this novel has a recognizable Sixties vibe:

The store is crowded with shoppers, most young and well-haired, wearing loose clothes and smothered in bags — bags with straps over their backs or shoulders or around their waists, bags in their hands, bags on their arms and at their elbows — sewn bags, knit bags, woven bags, bags featuring feathers and seashells, wooden amulets, ceramic zodiacal symbols, and beads, beads, beads. Matt’s young instincts tell him that this world of mystic arts is funny and crazy and maybe a little dangerous. He feels an undertow of arousal every time he walks in.

Parker throws obstacles in Matt’s path every step of the way. The boy has his mother’s drug habit and fecklessness to contend with, a cop who wants to break him, bad guys of all stripes (including those masquerading as good guys), and vicious types all too willing to prey on a young, defenseless kid down on his luck. “No — and furthermore” thrives here.

Where A Thousand Steps falters is the characterization, often two-dimensional, as with Kyle’s allegedly superfluous self-sacrifice. I believe the portrayals of Matt’s mother and a cop — not the one who wants to take Matt down — and a few other “oldsters,” but not those of the kids. Matt’s about the most upstanding person in Laguna Beach, and though you want him to carry a certain moral weight, he’s too upright, respectful, and open. Given such a selfish, neglectful, dishonest parents, I don’t understand why he isn’t more like them, or at least struggling not to be. It’s as though, in this coming-of-age novel, the protagonist has already figured out this youth thing and gotten good at it.

Most obviously, he’s got no adolescent anger or rebelliousness, though he has more right to them than many people making noise in Laguna Beach. He’s also much too trusting, to the point that when his father (an over-the-top superpatriot) interrogates him about his sex life, he answers, without a qualm. No qualms, either, about opposing the Vietnam War, though Kyle’s in it; the narrative pays lip service to that moral complexity and zips onward. As for the two girls attracted to Matt, they’re types, with good looks and social and cultural markers, but little in the way of inner life.

Finally, the end disappointed me; after such careful plotting, I didn’t expect the hackneyed, predictable confrontations. The romance subplot also takes an odd twist, with little afterthought. Consequently, A Thousand Steps is a strange amalgam, a novel with an intensely strong physical presence yet flimsy characters, a highly inventive narrative that somehow loses its sure-handedness at the climax. Take that for what you will.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review.