Nineteen-year-old Jason is lost. The rush of graduation parties has subsided, the ubiquitous discussion of college departures dimmed to a dull roar. His former classmates have made elaborate plans, but the only date on Jason’s calendar is a court appearance next Monday. Jason, who dropped out of high school just two months shy of graduation, finds himself stuck in the well-worn grooves of his hometown. But when his over-achieving girlfriend Lisa departs for UT Austin to study medicine, Jason finds Mesquite a place he can hardly recognize.
Jason’s family can offer him little direction. After his mother Sue’s unexpected death a few years back, his father Burl, fifteen years sober, slipped into old drinking habits. Jason watched the once clockwork-perfect routine of his family life descend into chaos. When Burl marries Lily, a high-strung, high-powered attorney, she brings a daughter into the house: Emily, eleven years old and a self-described know-it-all whose very existence is enough to irritate Jason.
Three days before Jason must appear in court, he receives a “Dear John” letter from Lisa. Heartbroken and determined to convince Lisa of his worth, Jason decides to hitchhike to Lisa’s dorm in Austin—but Emily, desperate to return to her father, a UT professor, overhears Jason’s plans and demands to accompany him. When Burl and Lily return home to find their children missing, Lily puts out an Amber Alert for Emily, accusing Jason of abducting her daughter. The frantic search effort that ensues threatens to destroy the tentative household that Burl and Lily have just begun to establish.
Smith’s gift for creating three-dimensional characters, abundantly demonstrated in his previous TCU Press titles including Understanding Women and Purple Hearts, lends this coming-of-age tale an unexpected quality of honesty and sophisticated narrative rarely seen in contemporary young adult fiction. Mary Powell, author of the TCU Press books Auslander and Galveston Rose, describes Smith’s prose as “rich and sophisticated, yet accessible, and the dialogue is right on.” Steplings doesn’t romanticize the misadventures of its protagonists. Though Jason and Emily grapple with universal teen issues—Emily searches for acceptance in her new middle school, while Jason balks when confronted with new adult responsibilities—their troubles feel like uncharted territory when expressed through pitch-perfect narrative voices. “Watching Jason self-destruct,” according to Powell, “is akin to watching someone in a horror film go down into the basement.”
The authentic quality of Smith’s prose extends to the Texas setting; readers will recognize their neighbors in the characters that populate Mesquite and Austin. Kate Lehrer observed that Smith also “draws subtle distinctions among social classes.” Smith invokes tension between Jason’s no-frills lifestyle and Lisa’s country-club upbringing, and paints a widening gulf between Burl’s small-town mannerisms and Lily’s cosmopolitan tastes.
Powell called Steplings “a friendly, hopeful, humorous, and thoughtful book about growing up.” Growing up, however, doesn’t belong exclusively to the young, and Steplings is a story that can’t be shelved neatly in the young adult category. Both teen and adult readers will see themselves in this multifaceted narrative of self-discovery.
C.W. SMITH'S novels are Thin Men of Haddam, Country Music, The Vestal Virgin Room, Buffalo Nickel, Hunter’s Trap, Understanding Women, Gabriel’s Eye, and Purple Hearts. He has also authored a memoir, Uncle Dad. His short stories have appeared in The Southwest Review, descant, Mademoiselle, Cimarron Review, American Short Fiction, American Literary Review, Sunstone Review, The Missouri Review, Carolina Quarterly, Quartet, and in his story collection, Letters From the Horse Latitudes. Smith is a Dedman Family Distinguished Professor at Southern Methodist University. He belongs to PEN American Center, The Author's Guild, and the Texas Institute of Letters. He was a Dobie-Paisano Fellow at the University of Texas and has received two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. In April 2011, Smith received the Lon Tinkle Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Texas Institute of Letters.
What Readers Are Saying:
“Steplings is a tender and deeply touching story that deftly unwinds the tale of an endearing young man’s coming-of-age and first love with such pitch-perfect dialogue and engrossing plot that its characters that leap off of the page and into your heart. Steplings is a novel as timeless as it is unforgettable. ~Sarah Bird, author of How Perfect Is That, The Yokota Officers’ Club, and The Gap Year.
“With Steplings, Charlie Smith has flawlessly captured the experience of being young, misunderstood, and full of longing. He manages to craft a tale that is at once gorgeously heartbreaking and a page-turning adventure. His ear for dialogue and lyrical prose are irresistible, as are his complex, loveable Jason and Emily—these aren't characters in a novel, they're people I know. Smith has accomplished that rarest of literary feats: to leave the reader on the final page equal parts exhilarated at having finished a gripping work of fiction, and forlorn at not being able to spend more time in the world he crafted.” ~Melissa Kirsch, author of The Girl’s Guide to Absolutely Everything
“Lordy, Steplings is a novel you read with increasing awe and dread, for C.W. Smith, page by page by artful page, is laying bare the illusions by which the American family sustains—and deceives—itself. In the matters of romantic love, marriage, community, school, class, and work, we're in peril, not least from our benighted yearnings for grace and harmony. Mr. Smith has used his great compassion and his enviable gifts as a storyteller without peer to detail what so animated Updike in the Rabbit series of novels: our innocence and our sentimentality for what never was. You won't read a more achingly beautiful book this season.” ~Lee K. Abbott, author of All Things, All at Once: New & Selected Stories
“Launched with scenes and exchanges of dialogue that are laugh-out-loud funny, C.W. Smith's Steplings maintains the rare wit but sobers up in a hurry. A nineteen-year-old boy, grieving over a first love's broken heart, and his eleven-year-old stepsister, yearning for her prior home and family, take off hitchhiking in the middle of the night and share an adventure that is hair-raising, tender, and wise. Here is an accomplished novelist at the top of his game.” ~Jan Reid, author of Comanche Sundown and The Bullet Meant for Me
“Steplings touches our hearts with the struggles and failures that are a part of finding our way, whatever our age. With both sensitivity and a strong narrative thrust, the book portrays the tugs between generations, couples, and, most especially those conflicts within ourselves as we come into adulthood, which often takes an entire lifetime. C.W. Smith's deftly written book is compelling on many levels.” ~Kate Lehrer is winner of the Western Heritage Award. Her latest novel is Confessions of a Bigamist.
A shared road trip creates a bond between two step-siblings, but this inward-looking character study focuses at least as much on their parents.
Mapping a complex web of emotional ties and stress fractures, Smith constructs long paragraphs of rumination and painful flashbacks that move among all the major characters’ points of view (with one significant exception). Exercising a real knack for making poor decisions, 19-year-old dropout Sanborn impulsively sets out one night to hitch from his Dallas suburb to Austin to confront his longtime girlfriend Lisa, who has just sent a “Dear John” letter from college—and finds himself saddled with 11-year-old stepsister Emily, desperate to see her divorced (and philandering) father. Meanwhile, Sanborn’s widowed father Burl and Emily’s mother Lily, both recovering alcoholics, find their sincere efforts to forge a marriage sharply challenged by their children’s unexplained disappearance. The author tucks in complications and minor adventures for all (the young folk are never put into real danger), plus a realistic if poignant resolution, but these only form a backdrop for his exploration of each character’s constellation of strengths and flaws. Self-analytical teen readers who find plenty to ponder in the heads of Sanborn, Burl, Emily and Lisa may be disappointed, though, that the author never gives Emily a fair chance to have her say.
Slow, a little weak in the plot department, but rich in psychological insight and lit by occasional flashes of humor. (Fiction. 15-19, adult). Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2011