Friday, May 06, 2005

American Vision

Travels with Charley, by John Steinbeck, Read by Ron McLarty, Recorded Books LLC, 1999

I’ve never particularly liked Steinbeck’s ambitiously big novels. The Grapes of Wrath was a long, hard slog; East of Eden I never got more than fifty or so pages into (though I loved the James Dean film of it). His short novels I absolutely adore. Their economy and grace, their compact poetry, their spare beauty, leave no room for the bludgeon-like political proselytizing of their bigger brethren. In these shorter books, the characters themselves and their situation will have to bear the load of everything Steinbeck wishes to convey and that’s as it should be.

I realize, of course, that this places me somewhat outside the established opinion on Steinbeck wherein the big books stand as towering achievements and the little books are quality, but of lesser stature. Oh well. There’s no accounting for taste.

This made me put off reading Travels with Charley for much longer than I should have. I feared that even if this book were closer to Of Mice and Men in its length and heft, it was unadorned Steinbeck; it was editorializing Steinbeck; it was Steinbeck without any recourse to characters whatsoever.

I needn’t have worried. Travels with Charley is Steinbeck in a conversational mood. Whereas slender volumes like The Pearl are poems and The Grapes of Wrath is oftentimes inflamed rhetoric from a soapbox, Travels with Charley is like sitting back with a beer and letting Steinbeck spin a reminisce or two about the time he and his dog took a little ride.

What sets this book apart from many of Steinbeck’s other works isn’t just the first person, non-fiction aspect of it, but rather the sense of humor, the bum unseriousness. The trip if a lark and that quality shines through the book in every scene, at least until the writer and his pooch end up down south. For your own pleasure’s sake, I can’t recommend a trip across America that ends with the Deep South, but for literary purposes it does bring with it an especial gravitas as Steinbeck was writing during the battle over desegregation.

There is a familiar moment right after Steinbeck starts on his journey when he looks at a map, sees the awesome immensity of America, and feels the dread size of his particular quest. It is exactly the same, he tells us, as when he sits down for the first time to write a novel, an impossibility, no chance of it ever happening. And then he writes a page and then another, and sentence at a time he manages it. Every single time, he says, every single time. It’s always nice to hear of the struggles of giants in the field. It makes staring at your typewriter or computer screen into an epic battle fought alongside heroes, or at the very least it provides a bit of companionship when the going gets tough.

At the same time, there is a melancholic nostalgia in the book that is doubly evocative for the reader separated from the publication of the work by some forty years. The America Steinbeck set out to see was still primarily small towns dotting the enormous landscape stretched between cities. He saw the direction things were taking and mourned the innocence of this life disappearing. Today, he and Charley’d find the cities have sprawled into huge pavement deserts of suburbs connected to exurbs connected to outlying towns only a scant few miles away from the outlying towns of the next city’s exurbs. To read Steinbeck’s nostalgic lament is to feel it twice over. To expect to find the America that he found would be an exercise in futility.

There is an illustrative scene at the beginning of his travel where the author stays at a hotel in which everything is made of plastic. The lone waitress in the diner where he is the lone eater bums him out and when he returns to his room, depression falls on him. The sanitized shrink-wrapped cups and the sanitized toilet seat dishearten and anger him, the resulting philosophical riff reminiscent of Henry Miller’s travelogue The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, an earlier antithesis to Steinbeck’s book. This sort of overtly, hotel-of-the-future upfront plastic quality has disappeared behind a faux naturalism that often irks me too, everything around me pretending to be something else with woodgrain finish and added texture. In a testament to “progress,” even what Steinbeck lamented America becoming has now become something else.

In what can only be a perfect kind of emblematic serendipity, as Steinbeck reflects with sadness on the thinning of the small town life and the clustering of people to the “breast of the big town,” he tells of how he bought a bull-roarer at Abercrombie & Fitch. That store alone is the perfect brand of precisely the disease Steinbeck describes. The metamorphosis from small town general store to a plastic, shopping mall clothes outlet in the ever-burgeoning citified sprawl embodies it succinctly in a way Steinbeck never lived to see.

What he did note, what was an early sign of this sprawling citification, which is still going on, still slowly becoming ever more so, was the ongoing erasure of regionalism, dialect, accent. With the increase of nationally syndicated programs for radio and television, each succeeding generation homogenizes more and more. Steinbeck recognized this change, and at the same time he was broad-minded enough to recognize that nostalgia is oftentimes itself a sanitizing gloss over history, the fondly recalled old-style non-pasteurized milk teaming with bacteria when you looked close enough.

Steinbeck suitably anthropomorphizes his companion but with a master’s touch. Charley, an actually French-born French poodle, is never painted in that slobbering dog-lover fashion all too familiar to nearly anyone who’s ever watched Kennel Club show dog competitions. Nor does he treat the animal as though he were merely a dumb brute. In Steinbeck’s interactions and reflections on Charley there is a mirror to his approach to America and Americans. There is a humble respect for another person, a bemused spectator’s detachment in his unwillingness to take the other too seriously, and an honest eye for ridiculousness, cowardice, and faults, all underlined with a willing capacity to love where love is earned.

His portraiture of America is just as balanced. In the wide-open spaces of the American West, Steinbeck is as receptive to the miraculous beauty of nature as a Transcendentalist; in his cautious esteem for the desert, he pays tribute both to the American ideals of frontier adventurism and skeptical practicality; in his confrontations with a southern racist, he rejects brutality, inequality, ignorance, and hatred. Steinbeck embraces America without ever once blinking, without whitewash, but without overreaching condemnation for its often backwards inhabitants too.

McLarty, in this now unavailable recording, performs a quiet miracle of his own for an audiobook. He neither hides behind the text nor strides in front of it hogging the show. His rendering is balanced and perceptive, his voice so pure and heartfelt that at times it was hard not to forget it wasn’t Steinbeck himself reading the work. To pull off such alchemy is to grasp fully Steinbeck’s own American Everyman quality and vision, it is to inhabit the book with perfection.

No comments: