The Third Step, by William Lobb, a novel about a tortured, haunted man named Frankie, is difficult. It took me a bit to get through Lobb’s grim tale, and it took me even longer to try and figure out how to capture, in words, the emotional journey of Frankie’s life. I don’t like Frankie; he’s not a great guy. He’s impulsive, angry, bitter, and most of all, lost. I wanted to put the book down because it was uncomfortable to read.
Yet I still felt drawn to his story. Frankie’s shadows were foreboding, but familiar.
Lobb explores the sinister side of the human psyche through Frankie’s life. It’s not a pretty life, with Lobb weaving Frankie’s spiritual search for truth through addiction, violence, heartbreak, and pain. It’s all a bit Odyssean, the plot taking unexpected turns and introducing new and important characters in Frankie’s life all the way up to the very last pages. I was never quite sure what to expect after those first few chapters when life became wild and desperate for Frankie, forcing him to begin a life on the run: a life of elusive peace, filled with constant chaos. Some of the more painful moments of loss made wish I could reach into the pages and fill Frankie’s life with hope, just like so many tried to do. But it was exactly this erratic unfolding of Frankie’s life that kept me determined to walk with him until the very end.
Lobb’s gritty, masculine writing creates a tangible, thick atmosphere. Each scene is cast in a grey monochrome that feels as if it happening right in front of me. I rarely read a book where I know how the world smells – it’s a sense so often ignored – but Lobb’s descriptions left me feeling less like I was reading Frankie’s story and more like I was experiencing a memory. His characters are particularly distinctive, the cast of Frankie’s life threatening to upstage him at various parts of the novel. Lobb writes his characters like landscapes, with each individual Frankie encounters a representation of the light and dark that can be found in this world and in ourselves. Their vivid personalities helped temper Lobb’s dialogue which, at times, felt unnatural, with more than the occasional monologue disingenuous to the vibrancy of such rich characters.
“Frankie was successfully drunk.”
Lobb’s writing often seeks to balance a careful line between the casual and the theatrical. Sentences like “Frankie was successfully drunk,” sound like they are coming from an old acquaintance at a bar about to tell the story of the night. But then Lobb will switch his cracked, led pencil for fine point pen, and illustrate the delicate, spiritual struggle taking place within Frankie with elegance and extravagance, writing powerful tenderness like:
“The celestial tug-of-war would fade and they would find themselves pulled into many other stars along the way, but they would be forever entwined, influenced by each other’s force. This dance would last, in some way, forever.”
It was at these moments of vulnerability I felt the most connected to Frankie’s story. Lobb has a talent for creating structure and distinction out of the broken whispers of doubt: whispers, I am sure, many of his readers have heard before. However, the balance between this finesse and the more casual tone of the novel don’t always work in harmony, and their frequent juxtaposition often lifted me out of Lobb’s story and left me scanning the pages, impatient to get back to Frankie’s adventure.
At over 400 pages and a hefty 45 chapters, I felt Frankie’s story could have been curated to keep the strongest, sincerest moments of Lobb’s writing. I am left wishing The Third Step offered a more refined and unified theme because it’s disjointed editing left Lobb’s message camouflaged by inconsistency, the message of struggle unfocused.
You should read this book if: you have ever struggled with faith, searched for hope in a time of despair, experienced the cold hand of doubt across an aching soul, or loved someone, anyone, who has struggled with addiction, depression, or their inner demons. While I remain frustrated at the excess that obscures Lobb’s best writing and powerful message, The Third Step – named after what is often the hardest step in recovery – is still a difficult but important novel that offers an uncensored glimpse into the truth behind doubt and the power of hope.