Ed Garrison’s family home is a familiarly unhappy one, wracked with divorce and parent-child misunderstandings; the angst of a typical suburban upbringing. From the opening words of Eugene writer J.T. Bushnell’s debut novel – “Our dog ran away in May” – to the protagonist’s generally glum outlook through the first few chapters, The Step Back immerses the reader in the absorbing malaise of a teenage boy as he fumbles his way into adulthood.
IN REVIEW: THE STEP BACK, by J.T. Bushnell
Ooligan Press, publication date May 11, 2021
256 pages, paperback, $16
Children in America are constantly and unabashedly asked by teachers, parents, and television programs what they intend to “be” when they grow up. In Ed’s case, it seems that he’s known all his life: a basketball player. During the spring season of his final year in high school, Ed’s one true love is basketball – and he has a seemingly happy, wholesome family to come back to at the end of the day. This all changes when, one afternoon, after the disappearance of the family dog, his mother announces that she will be leaving them not only for Maryland, but for a relationship with a woman. This declaration becomes the catalyst in Bushnell’s new novel that sends Ed, his 14-year-old brother Charlie, and their father into a snowball of negligence and repression as they grapple with the unpleasantness of change.
Mr. Garrison, Ed’s father, is a standoffish English professor, a sad but sweet workaholic with a stiff drink in hand: As his work life and hermit-like tendencies increasingly interfere with his ability to cultivate meaningful relationships with his sons, he does his best to offer life advice through a series of critical-thinking questions.
Charlie, the youngest character in the story, begins as an eighth grader of above-average height with the unremarkable urge to rebel. Like most young people as they attempt to wade through the complex emotions and general perturbation of adolescence, Charlie wants nothing to do with his older brother’s binary ideas of wrong and right.
In The Step Back’s first few chapters, which alternate among Ed’s obsession with high school basketball, his desire for Charlie to succeed in the game, and his seething anger at his mother as she moves to Maryland to embark on a new life, the three men sink further into a brooding rage. Ed, in a mixture of retaliation and optimism, makes the brash decision to withdraw his acceptance to the University of California, Berkeley and instead attend a small, educationally subpar community college in an attempt to join its basketball team. Ed understands that he might not have the skills for college ball, he he takes the leap anyway.
From Ed’s choice comes a four-year-long avalanche of missteps, callous displays, and bad decisions. His lack of initiative, seemingly absent capacity for empathy, and misunderstanding of boundaries results in a string of relationships ranging from embarrassing to disastrous. These relationships, particularly with women, project his anger toward his own mother for cheating and moving away.
Bushnell’s focus is not the philosophical examination of how to discover acceptance of displeasing situations despite personal feelings of pain, but rather the character’s victimization and spiral into self-pity. Through a sometimes irksome journey encompassing lies, alienation, and the thrust of new experiences, Ed earns both sighs of exasperation and moments of true concern from the reader.
The concept of a less-than-ideal coming of age is nothing new, and many people have palpably felt the depression that comes with leaving the safety of home at only 18. Had Bushnell simplified the descriptive language of his writing to match Ed’s languid attitude, and focused more on the difficulty of the mother’s emotionally taxing coming-out decision rather than the metaphor of daily life as basketball, the book’s moral of transformation through honesty and communication may have been pinpointed earlier on.
But The Step Back makes a respectable decision to leave out the saccharine. Its ambiance adds grit that grows on the reader with each passing scene change. It is a welcome reprieve when we leave basketball metaphors behind for a run-down two-bedroom in the city, a drive through the redwoods, a cleaning frenzy in his childhood home. Consequently, during Ed’s better moments the melancholy enveloping the narrative evokes the essence of Ponyboy Curtis, narrator of S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders.
Still, The Step Back pulls on heartstrings. In a pared-down section just short of the fourth chapter, Bushnell says it all in the silence: the cocktail of suppressed sadness and glaring pride of a parent parting ways with a child leaving home for school.
“He rolled down the Volvo’s window before pulling away but just sat there in his idling car, looking at me through sunglasses. ‘What?’ I asked. ‘My boy.’ His mouth bent and his voice turned husky. ‘In college.‘”
From its unsympathetic beginnings, the novel mimics the main character as it grows into a touching comment on family and humility. In the final fourth of the novel we see reconciliation, acceptance, recognition of complex emotion, and the understanding of nuance slowly but surely seeping their way into Ed Garrison’s cognition, leaving the reader both thankful and relieved. Overall, J.T. Bushnell achieves a compelling vulnerability in his telling of a coming-of-age story that starts from a simple place: a boy’s love for high school basketball.