Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thoughts on John Steinbeck

In his collection of essays, Songbook, Nick Hornby writes about his indifference toward Bob Dylan this way:

"I'm not a big Dylan fan.  I've got Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited, obviously.  And Bringing It All Back Home and Blood on the Tracks.  Anyone who likes music owns those four.  And I'm interested enough to have bought The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3, and that live album we now know wasn't recorded at the Royal Albert Hall.  The reviews of  Time out of Mind and Love and Theft convinced me to shell out for those two, as well, although I can't say I listen to them very often.  I once asked for Biograph as a birthday present, so with that and The Bootleg Series I've got two Dylan boxed sets.  I also, now I look, seem to own copies of World Gone Wrong, The Basement Tapes, and Good as I've Been to You...  And I have somehow picked up along the way Street Legal, Desire, and John Wesley Harding.  Oh, and I bought Oh Mercy because it contains the lovely "Most of the Time," which is on the High Fidelity soundtrack.  There are, therefore, around twenty separate Bob Dylan CDs on my shelf."

Now, I may not own as many Steinbeck books as Hornby owns Dylan records, but the relationship is similar.  I spent a large part of my adolescence reading (and being profoundly affected by) the books of Steinbeck, but I don't necessarily consider myself a fan.  I read The Red Pony when I was in eighth grade, and Of Mice and Men a few years later.  In AP English I read both East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath, and somewhere before graduation I also finished off The Pearl and Winter of Our Discontent, and I know I have an old copy of Cannery Row lying around this house somewhere.

That's six novels, not to mention various short stories, completed before my eighteenth birthday, yet I never counted him as one of my favorites.  I hadn't realized this until this week, when I picked up a copy of Travels with Charley at my favorite used bookstore.  Sixteen years had passed since I read a word that he wrote, and I thought it was about time to give him another go.  I also had a hunch that it would pass the I Hope This Book Doesn't Suck test, which, of course, it did.

Steinbeck wrote Travels With Charley about a cross-country trip he took in the fall and winter of 1960, when he was 58 years old.  This isn't the Dust Bowl; his travels coincide with the Kennedy-Nixon election, and the fear of atomic annihilation peppers every other page.  Steinbeck seems out of place and small in this version of America, where the stakes are even higher than they were in East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath, and at first it is difficult to imagine him eating pie in roadside diners or picking up hitchhikers in Louisiana.  Can you imagine the creator of the Joad family, changing a flat tire in the rain somewhere in Oregon?

Steinbeck travels in a modified pickup truck that he named Rocinante, after Don Quixote's horse.  On the back is his "house," an impressive space including a bed, table, sink, coffee machine, and various firearms.  Joining him on the trip is his blue poodle, the Charley in the title.

Travels With Charley conforms to the well-worn American-road-trip-as-journey-to-self-knowledge model that we know so well, but this book does it exceptionally well.  Steinbeck is warmer and wittier in this book than anything I had ever read from him before, and Travels With Charley had more in common with Life on the Mississippi than it did with The Pearl.  I did not expect a streak of Twain to run through this writer who captured desperation and hopelessness moreso than perhaps anyone else I have ever read.

Steinbeck did not have long to live by the time he steered Rocinante away from his Long Island home on his quest to to "rediscover this moster land," and he knew it.  The heart problems that would kill him in 1968 had already announced their presence.  Ten-thousand miles after his trip began, as he pulls back into New York City, he states that "people don't take trips--trips take people."  We already knew that, but it doesn't hurt to be reminded.

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