The Books Behind A Thousand Steps
By T. Jefferson ParkerNovember 3, 2021
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I called upon a lifetime of reading for my latest novel, A Thousand Steps, a coming-of-age thriller set in Laguna Beach in 1968.
There have been so many thousands of volumes written about coastal Southern California in the last century and a half, it’s not possible to read but a fraction of them.
But certain books about coastal So Cal have become riveted in my memory, and those are the ones I dove back into, to inspire and inform A Thousand Steps.
Let’s start with fiction:
Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn, Delacorte Press, 1984.
It’s hard to find a better novel about coastal So Cal than this moody, observant, unpredictable look at a young man from inland California searching for his sister in Huntington Beach—aka Surf City. It’s a tale tightly focused on its protagonist, Ike, an impressionable eighteen-year-old with a (very) troubled family. He’s much impressed by the surfers who stalk the waves of the Huntington pier, some of whom are hardcore bikers, one of whom takes a protective, big-brother stance over Ike. Beyond the mystery of what’s become of Ike’s sister here in the company of the rough surfers and bikers of Huntington Beach, Tapping the Source is a wonderful tale of two worlds—inland, poor, rural California, and the rough young thrill-seekers of the coast.
The Kings of Cool by Don Winslow, Simon and Schuster, 2012.
You can die trying, but you won’t find a more incisive, entertaining, and historically accurate novel about coastal Southern California. Winslow focuses on Laguna Beach, with much of the story taking place in 1967, the year the hippies swarmed into Laguna after the calamitous “Summer of Love” in San Francisco. Of course, the hippies collide with the tough surfers, out of which strange union is born The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, which—though state-chartered, licensed, and taxed as a church—was also a major distributor of drugs throughout California and beyond. Their headquarters was on Coast Highway, a head shop called Mystic Arts World, which also sold everything from health food to ceramic bongs and hookahs to books on Eastern religions, sex, and the use of LSD. Winslow’s novel captures this freakish time beautifully, in great detail, and with the stylistic verve for which he is widely known.
True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne, Dutton, 1977.
This is one of my favorite novels of all time, although it focuses on Los Angeles (not the coast) long before the ’60s. Over the years, I’ve re-read it several times while casting my net for a new story to write. It’s one of those densely packed novels that moves between “now” and “then,” sinuously exploring the Irish-Catholic world of cops and crooks, priests and prelates, gangsters and fixers. The novel is set in the rough-and-tumble LAPD of post-World War II. At the core of True Confessions is a fictionalized murder very like that of the Black Dahlia. Rowdy, raucous, funny, and profane, Dunne’s novel floors me every time I’ve read it. Most writers are inspired by writing, and my true confession about True Confessions is that this book helps to inform every novel I’ve written.
Now, for the non-fiction part of our show:
Orange Sunshine by Nicholas Schou, St. Martin’s Press, 2010.
Schou’s book is probably the definitive piece on Laguna Beach drug culture in the late sixties. The cover description gives you some idea of its breadth and ambition: “The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and its quest to spread peace, love, and ACID to the world.” Schou focuses on the Brotherhood and its global drug-smuggling ring, headquartered at the Mystic Arts World head shop/book store/art gallery/health food bar on Coast Highway in Laguna. (The MAW building has been recently demolished; when I was there in early September it was nothing but rubble behind a chain-link fence.) Schou colorfully sketches in the insanely brave BEL smugglers who would fly to Afghanistan, purchase vehicles, load them up with literally tons of hashish, head for the nearest port, and ship the drug-stuffed vehicles back to the states for distribution. All this, to finance the manufacture and distribution of LSD, which Brotherhood founder John Griggs truly believed would lead a tripping user to experience Jesus and God, and could literally save mankind from itself. This book is well researched and written in a way that captures the outrageous recklessness of the late ’60s in Southern California.
Tempus Fugitive by Dion Wright, Mindful Wordsmith, 2016.
Dion Wright didn’t just write a compelling book that focuses on the artistic, spiritually questing, and drug-infused life in Laguna Beach in the 1960s, he actually lived it. Wright grew up in San Juan Capistrano and went on to take an art degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is one of Laguna’s premiere artists and worked as the Mystic Arts World art gallery curator during MAW’s short, flamboyant years as the center of the Southern California LSD trade. Wright’s large, dazzling painting, “The Taxonomic Mandala,” hung in the meditation room at MAW, a room in the back of the store reserved for BEL members, friends, and families. (Google Dion Wright and look at his art. His work is dazzling, even on a computer screen.) Tempus Fugitive is more than a researched history of two beguiling decades (he writes about the ’50s and ’60s), it’s also a memoir of an artist who found himself at the center of So Cal art and culture in those tumultuous years. His eyes are sharp and his language is wonderful and he reports back to us with some terrific, surprising tales.
Lastly, don’t miss…
This website is a portal into a wonderful, mysterious, now-gone time and place—Laguna Beach in the late ’60s!
About A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker:
Laguna Beach, California, 1968. The Age of Aquarius is in full swing. Timothy Leary is a rock star. LSD is God. Folks from all over are flocking to Laguna, seeking peace, love, and enlightenment.
Matt Anthony is just trying get by.
Matt is sixteen, broke, and never sure where his next meal is coming from. Mom’s a stoner, his deadbeat dad is a no-show, his brother’s fighting in Nam . . . and his big sister Jazz has just gone missing. The cops figure she’s just another runaway hippie chick, enjoying a summer of love, but Matt doesn’t believe it. Not after another missing girl turns up dead on the beach.
All Matt really wants to do is get his driver’s license and ask out the girl he’s been crushing on since fourth grade, yet it’s up to him to find his sister. But in a town where the cops don’t trust the hippies and the hippies don’t trust the cops, uncovering what’s really happened to Jazz is going to force him to grow up fast.
If it’s not already too late.
*Author photo credit: Rita Parker