Steinbeck — the name is always just that in my head, never with John preceding the last — was always one of those required authors. As a requirement I, of course, obstinately and thoroughly disliked The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, and Grapes of Wrath.
Obstinately refusing to do or think as told is a difficult personality trait to outgrow. In a workplace building that’s a physical throwback to pre-1990, there are white and red “No Smoking” signs hung in the pre-ADA bathrooms. Every one makes me want to naughtily flick a cigarette held between my forefingers as if I’m one of the Pink Ladies from Grease. I don’t smoke. In a dive bar’s restroom I wish to school ma’arm the walls covered in visitors’ crude and inarticulate graffiti. I don’t. Why waste my faithful sharpie pen’s ink on these Rebels Without a Cause?
Either I’ve grown up a bit or become tired of my own pointless rebellion, but I made another attempt at Steinbeck a short while back. I had picked up a few non-fiction works delving into the Gulf of California. Repeatedly the authors referenced Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez. At the close of the last book Steinbeck made it on to my reading list.
I’d no idea he was a naturalist rather than just some guy forcing teenagers to analyze the fictional lives of migrant workers diving for oysters during the Great Depression. Or something like that, I didn’t pay much attention during those lessons so I can’t really say why we read any of those books.
Neither my 12th grade English teacher nor Steinbeck could make me interested in empathizing with the poor, the have-nots, the workers, and the mis-fortuned in society through fiction. But throw a few whales into the real world and I was hooked.
Except, Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez wasn’t on the library’s shelves; Travels with Charley in Search of America was. Throw in a very big French poodle and I was hooked. Steinbeck can write…sentences you want to roll about your mouth for a bit, explore their feel and rhythm; write this one and that one in your own peaked or looped handwriting to see how it looks in your mind.
Keeping in mind that specifics of his fiction no longer hold a space in my memory, I think true-life observations are where he excels. Steinbeck turns what would be considered mundane into entertaining observations of crossing the U.S.-Canadian border, Texas, a dog’s experience meeting the giant redwoods…
The task-based conversations rather than the big societal exploration conversations were my favorite sections. Of course, there’s people and personifications in them, but there are also details not usually included in the latter variety. There was a time when most dogs weren’t fixed. Abercrombie & Fitch used to sell cow horns. The highway — it’s novelty, turmoil, and sameness — was worth mentioning.
I don’t care that it’s a literary rather than a documentarians retelling. Isn’t that obvious? He makes no mention of taking notes and so the conversations are all too complete. The situations are too well produced — as if they are on stage. Even while I was telling anyone willing to listen about this terrific book there was a creeping idea that Steinbeck was creatively expounding on the happenings of his trip. It didn’t bother me.
Others have figured it out. Closing the back cover, I turned to my computer to look it up. Some actually feel betrayed by Steinbeck. Others take a more reasonable — an author and reader — point of view. I obstinately suspect that I and the others (rather than the some) approach books with certain commonalities.
Steinbeck’s visit to Texas amused me the most. With all that’s changed in the past 54 years, Texans haven’t. He wrote several pages about the intrusive, contradictory blanket that is Texas. I can’t argue with a word of it. You’ll have to read it for yourself.
In Texas, he eats the best chili con carne he’s ever had. There’s no more description of it than that. It might be true. It might have been a thank you note to the friends who made it. It might have been the setting that made it the best ever. In other words, I don’t believe him.
It was required eating.