February 09, 2006


Small Steps. By Louis Sachar. Delacorte Press. $16.95.

     The problem with setting high standards is that people expect you to live up to them.  Joseph Heller, for example, set a standard with his first novel, Catch-22, that he never came close to matching afterwards.  In his later career, when an observer told Heller he had not written anything approaching Catch-22, the author responded, “Who has?”

     This is a darned good question, but it begs another question: why do authors so often seem to have only one truly good book in them?  It’s too soon to say that of Louis Sachar, who has written numerous books already and presumably has ideas for many more.  But it’s certainly true that he has not yet come close to the astonishing quality and sheer humanity of Holes – certainly not in follow-ups such as Stanley Yelnats’ Survival Guide to Camp Green Lake and the present volume.

     Small Steps is the story of Armpit (real name: Theodore A. Johnson) and what happens to him back home in Austin, Texas, two years after he is released from Camp Green Lake.  It is a well-told ordinary story whose very ordinariness comes through most clearly when Sachar tries to render it extraordinary.  The author seems to be trying too hard all the time – while Holes read like an effortless production (which of course it wasn’t), Small Steps reads like a tortuous, labored one.

     Armpit’s life continues to intersect Camp Green Lake in some ways, notably the reappearance of his buddy X-Ray, whose get-rich-quick scheme goes awry and causes Armpit plenty of grief – until a helpful detective winks the whole thing away.  But there are plenty of new elements here, too – which, unfortunately, tend to ring false.  A notable one is Armpit’s 10-year-old disabled next-door neighbor, Ginny, who is the only person who really believes in Armpit (who, of course, believes very much in her, too).  Another crucial one is a teen pop singer named Kaira DeLeon, with whom Armpit develops a relationship of sorts.  Kaira’s stepfather/manager, Jerome, is the bad guy here, and is so one-dimensional a villain that he would almost be laughable if Sachar did not have him perform a violent act of shocking viciousness.  But Armpit’s behavior would also be laughable if Sachar did not intend it to be taken seriously – as in a scene in which Jerome, for no apparent reason, hands Armpit a baseball bat and has him take some practice swings.  This proves a crucial event, to whose meaning Armpit is totally oblivious even though Sachar makes it so obvious to readers that he might as well have written it in neon lights.

     Small Steps is about all the small steps that damaged people take to try to turn their lives around.  The writing is good and the dialogue especially so.  The ending is, not surprisingly, bittersweet, but it is not particularly satisfying.  Small Steps comes across as a highly contrived book that would not garner a great deal of attention except for its connection with Holes – a book to whose level, unfortunately, it never rises.

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