A Thousand Steps

Written by T. Jefferson Parker
Review by Larry Zuckerman

If you’re into the hippie scene, Laguna Beach, California, is the place to be in summer 1968. However, sixteen-year-old Matt Anthony has more compelling concerns, such as trying to put food on the table, because his mother, hooked on opium-laced hashish, earns very little as a waitress. His father’s a deadbeat who lives in a different state, and his older brother, Kyle, is fighting in Vietnam.

Worse yet, Matt’s older sister, Jasmine, has disappeared, and he comes to believe she’s been kidnapped. But the police assume that Jazz is just another drug-addled kid on a bender, so it’s up to Matt to rescue her.

How he tries makes for an exceptionally tense, plot-driven thriller, the background to which is Matt’s hand-to-mouth existence, in which he delivers newspapers, fishes to get protein, and cadges leftovers from friends who work in restaurant kitchens. He has his mother’s 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.

However, I find the characters hard to believe, especially the teenagers. The two girls Matt likes have attitudes but little in the way of inner lives. He’s nearly perfect, without the anger or rebelliousness you’d expect, and nothing of his selfish, dishonest parents in him. It’s as though this protagonist coming of age has already aced being young. Surprisingly, given the careful plotting, I didn’t expect the hackneyed confrontations at the end, nor the jarring turn the romance takes, with little afterthought.

A Thousand Steps is a novel with an intensely strong physical presence and well-drawn historical atmosphere, an inventive narrative that somehow loses its sure-handedness. Take that for what you will.