February 6, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
J.T. Bushnell's The Step Back is a poignant and compelling coming of age novel.
I look like a mild-mannered, respectable fellow, so when I gave a ride to a former punk rocker in my MFA program more than a decade ago, he was astonished to hear the album I had in the player. “Is this The Dwarves?” he asked, turning wide eyes on me.
I knew what he meant. Their angry, obscene, semi-obscure brand of punk rock seemed to be meant for people who’d had harder, messier lives than I appeared to. My classmate seemed to gain a measure of respect for me after that, one that went beyond musical taste. I suspect he sensed that there was more to me than what was on the surface, that perhaps I had sharks patrolling my own depths, as he did, and that it forged some small glimmer of connection between us.
That’s largely the story of my novel, The Step Back, only it is presented as a progression there instead of a moment—one that music helps to cue and reveal.
“I Want to Break Free” by Queen
Ed Garrison is about to break free, but his mother beats him to it. He is finishing high school and looking forward to UC Berkeley when his mother announces she’s leaving the family for a woman. For her, the social changes in the early 2000s have opened avenues to her that she never thought possible, as the song suggests. But it also means sacrificing the companionship and family that have sustained her for two decades: “I can’t get used to / living without, living without / Living without you by my side.” For Ed, it means only abandonment, followed shortly by the disintegration of his family.
“Basketball Jones” by Cheech & Chong
Devastated, though he won’t admit it, Ed clings to the one shred of normalcy and connection left to him: basketball. His interest becomes a longing, an addiction—a jones. Ed’s teammates have been another kind of family to him, and for one last summer, he can still draw them near and commune through the holy rituals of their sport: “I need someone to stand beside me / I need, I need someone to set a pick for me at the free-throw line of life.” But then the summer ends, and he can’t stand to lose his second family as he’s lost his first, and so he gives up UC Berkeley, along with many other things, to keep it.
“The Dope Show” by Marilyn Manson
One day, feeling especially confused and alone, Ed asks his younger brother Charlie to come shoot hoops. It has always been a point of connection between them, but on this day Ed finds Charlie listening to something unimaginably alien: this song. All Ed knows of it is what he sees on the album of Mechanical Animals: “a hollow-eyed man wearing a white latex suit that gave him breasts and ambiguous genitalia.” For him, that is enough. Charlie is becoming alien to him, too, as he grows into adolescence, and this moment seems to crystalize it. Ed lashes out, terrified he might lose Charlie to the same obscure forces that have stolen his parents—and as a result, he does.
“Unrepentant” by The Dwarves
After two years of estrangement, Ed gets a call from Charlie. By now Ed has made a mess of his life, so he is overjoyed when his brother wants to visit him. This joy deflates when he learns that Charlie and five friends are only looking for a place to crash after a Dwarves show in the area. Feeling used, Ed declines Charlie’s invitation to accompany them to the show, believing it is insincere. He would see the tone, title, and lyrics of this song as a perfect embodiment of Charlie’s attitude, not his own: “Yeah I’m unrepentant / And I’m glad I said it / There isn’t anything to save.”
“Lithium” by Nirvana
After Ed is forced to confront his shortcomings and failures, he wanders into a bowling alley and hears this song. He has heard it before, but this time he really listens and finds it describing his feelings to himself. It makes him think of Charlie, who used to play Nevermind in a loop, and he wonders if that was what appealed to his brother. The music begins to feel more like a bridge to his brother than a chasm keeping them apart, ant the lyrics reinforce this with a line that many people see as caustic but that I find profoundly human and reassuring: “I’m so ugly / But that’s OK / ’Cause so are you.”
“Home” by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
All the while, Ed has been trying to create a new kind of family for himself through romance. In the lyrics of this song, I hear him insisting to himself that he has found it: “Home, oh take me home / Home is wherever I'm with you.” But each new romance fails because Ed is broken in ways he doesn’t acknowledge. After that brokenness is exposed to him, he has no choice but to return to his real home and reckon with his real family. There he finds what he has truly lost, and he begins striving to accept rather than replace it.
“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” by Bob Dylan
I imagine this song playing in the background of the novel’s most important scene for many reasons: its tone of raucous good times, its transcendence across generations, and its ambiguous lyrical touchstone: “But I would not feel so all alone / Everybody must get stoned.” Does it mean that everybody, eventually, receives a stoning as punishment? Or that everybody, please, get high and join the party? Both meanings apply to the scene, which takes place between Ed, Charlie, and their father. After Ed suffers a beating in front of them, they sit in a dirty motel room, ripping from Charlie’s pipe, finally able to approach the topic of their mutual abandonment and pain, which helps lead them back to each other—less alone, indeed.
J.T. Bushnell is the author of the novel The Step Back. His short fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in more than twenty literary journals and are available online at Monkeybicycle, Flyway, and Brevity. His essays about writing have also been published in Poets & Writers, The Writer’s Chronicle, The Writer, Catapult, and The Science of Story: The Brain Behind Creative Nonfiction from Bloomsbury Press. He teaches at Oregon State University in Corvallis and lives in Eugene with his wife and two daughters. To see what he’s reading, follow him on Twitter: @JTBushnell1.