One Step Beyond: A Teenage Odyssey in 1980s Los Angeles
by Mike Pearson (illustrated by Robert E. Richards)
Missing Words Publishing
Summary: Pearson’s memoir One Step Beyond is a 1980s version of the classic “coming-of-age” tale. It’s a funny, sometimes bittersweet account to which anyone can relate.
Review: Mike Pearson grew up in tony Pacific Palisades, California, but still went through all of the angst-inducing events that comprise adolescence. He recounts those events in his amusing memoir One Step Beyond. Any “children of the eighties” looking for a trip down memory lane will enjoy the book.
Perhaps the best aspect of the book is Pearson’s droll sense of humor. He manages to inject both laughs and insight into “everyday” situations. At one point, Pearson had a job in a gas station on the Pacific Coast Highway. Surprisingly, his account of this humdrum job is terrific.
For example, Pearson develops a crush on a woman he sees waiting at a bus stop near the gas station. He searches for “lines” that he can use to start a conversation with her in the following passage –
“I didn’t have the nerve to talk to her. I thought about starting up a conversation with her by saying things like, ‘Waiting for the bus?’
Or: ‘Would you care for a bite of my liquor-store burrito? Watch out for the cartilage nugget chunks.’
Or: ‘Could I give you a ride home in my serial killer automobile? You might make it home alive.’” (p. 109).
Pearson provides dozens of anecdotes about the people who drifted through the station. Another favorite of mine was his description of the surfer dropouts who lived only for waves, sex, and drugs.
One Step Beyond also contains many illustrations by Robert E. Richards. The illustrations are funny and contribute a lot to the book. Richards depicts people in a grotesque manner that reminds one of the illustrations that Ralph Steadman did for Hunter S. Thompson’s books.
Pearson developed an affinity for punk rock music and spent time both following punk bands and playing bass in his own bands. His love of music takes up much of the book. Pearson describes the appeal of punk in the following passage –
“Punk rock eliminated the line between the audience and the stage. Everybody became the show. I loved how it was a big ‘screw you’ to the old school of rock n’ rollers…” (p. 18).
However, he also acknowledges that his attraction to punk culture was also related to some of his personal problems –
“I was enjoying my new friends and was the happiest I had ever been. It wouldn’t be long, though, before I’d gravitate back, unconsciously, toward the angry kids, the punkers, and the mentally disturbed. Underneath my newly found confidence and feeling of hope, I was still a young, hurt and angry guy with low self-esteem and a powerful pull toward frustration and loneliness” (p. 149).
Many of the bands that Pearson mentions have long been forgotten. But he helps his readers by including a short glossary. It includes short, droll descriptions of the bands and some of the forgotten 80s slang in the book.
Trouble in Paradise – Shifts in Tone
Though One Step Beyond is funny, it has serious undertones. Often Pearson relates that – for all of the affluence in his milieu – there were many serious problems. Pearson’s father worked all of the time and his mother dumped her problems on Mike. At one point, he writes of his mother “I was afraid that if I didn’t offer some emotional support to her that she might make good on her threats to kill herself” (p. 15).
Pearson condemns his parents’ generation for dysfunctional, permissive parenting. He says of a friend “Having basically no guidance, no rules, and no supervision, we turned into self-governed stoned freaks” (p. 36). In regard to sex, his says of his peers “My elementary was full of perverts probably because we were products of perpetually nude and the super inappropriate revolutionary sexually revolutionary ‘70s with NO boundaries” (p. 76).
The shifts in tone from lighthearted tales of teen angst to serious discussions of parenting problems can be jarring to the reader. One has the sense that – perhaps – Pearson jokes about some of these issues because it would be uncomfortable (for reader and author alike) if he approached the issues in a straightforward manner. The book closes with a quick summary of what has happened to Pearson since the 1980s.
A while back, I read Michael Medved & David Wallechinsky’s What Really Happened to the Class of ’65, which is also about teens in Pacific Palisades. After reading Class of ’65, I saw an online reference to Pearson’s book and got interested. Both books are good, but one thing that I like about One Step Beyond is that Pearson has a degree of humility that is missing from Class of ’65. Anyone interested in reading about the 1980s or high school should check out One Step Beyond.