One of the highlights of my job is getting to read new books before they are released. I love to be one of the first people in the world to experience a story, and it’s even more fun to get to share with my own readers when there’s a book coming out that you simply can’t miss. This month, I was privileged to read The Step Back by J.T. Bushnell, a writing instructor at Oregon State University.
A solid fiction novel, Bushnell’s first venture into the world of novels is immensely worthwhile and filled with distinct perspectives. The Step Back follows the coming-of-age story of Ed Garrison, a college freshman who is thrown brutally into the world of adulthood amid his parent’s divorce and the subsequent abandonment by his mother who leaves to pursue another relationship. Ed progresses through a series of bad decisions, as he tries to discover what it means to be a man, a son, a boyfriend and, possibly the most difficult, a brother. Channeling inspiration from his own basketball experience, Bushnell weaves a tale that is both challenging and charming. The characters truly come off the page and live fully within the imagination.
When asked what he was most excited about in the book, Bushnell said, “I’m excited about the characters. They were such a pleasure to get to know—a lovestruck, rascally, prideful, and vulnerable bunch, with very different personalities, but all of them yearning and striving in their own ways. I’m excited for readers to meet them and to see the ways they collide and reveal each other and grow.”
What I Liked:
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I really did enjoy this book. I read it in three days — couldn’t put it down. I was delighted by the vulnerability and honesty of the characters in this story. This is one of the first books that I have read in a long while in which the male main character felt completely authentic. He was not portrayed as a hero who knew all the answers, nor was he a dumb jock who needed the help of others to function in daily life. Rather, he was a character who simply struggled through life, doing the best he could until he was taught by experience to do better. In short, he was just like all of us.
I loved what Bushnell wrote in an interview with The Advocate: “A lot of young men right now don’t really know how to be. There’s this deeply engrained tradition of masculinity that most of them are still operating under, not talking about your feelings and all that. And there’s this newer idea that it’s toxic to operate that way, and so people expect men to stop. What I want people to know is that just calling it toxic doesn’t release men from the old model and all its norms and expectations. Those things still hold deep power in our culture. So a lot of young men today both have the toxicity of the old model and the judgment of the new model to contend with, which can make them feel like there’s no right way to be.”
The other thing I appreciated about this novel was the skill and expertise involved in it’s craftsmanship. The story and language suggest a command of the genre not common among first-time novelists. I was consistently impressed by the reach of the content and its application to a greater audience. I believe that everyone who reads this book will find a character to relate to, if not several. This novel asks the hard questions, and doesn’t simply answer them with the easiest solution. Instead, it challenges our preconceived notions about love, loss, commitment, family, and brotherhood.
What Was Missing:
I had few complaints about this book, as the section above makes clear, however I will say that while the relationships of the men in the book were held paramount throughout the story, I felt a sense of missing reconciliation amongst them. I was happy to see reconciliation within the main character, but I was slightly dissatisfied with the way ends were tied up between specifically father and brothers. I would have liked to see a little more of them towards the end of the novel.
I highly recommend this novel. It’s vulnerability and breadth have the potential to relate to even the staunchest of critics. It’s a reminder that while time may not heal all wounds, that intention and forgiveness, both of ourselves and others, just might. It’s a plea for reconciliation and the building or repair of important relationships, while also granting permission to those who don’t know where they fit to simply be. I encourage my readers to pick up a copy and give this book some thought. It’s worth doing the introspection suggested by the experiences of the characters in this book.
About the Author:
J.T. Bushnell graduated Summa Cum Laude from Linfield College in 2002 with a Bachelors of Arts in Journalism and minors in both English and Spanish. He earned his MFA in creative fiction writing from University of Oregon in 2007 and moved to Corvallis to begin teaching at OSU. He currently lives in Eugene with his wife Katie and two daughters, Lola and Anna.
The Step Back releases to the public on May 11 through Ooligan Press. Copies will be available at Grass Roots Books and Music. A signing will be held at Grass Roots on May 12, from 4-5 p.m.