Wednesday, January 09, 2008

In Their Shoes Reading Challenge, Book #1: Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

Title of book and author? Travels With Charley - John Steinbeck

Fiction or non-fiction? Non-fiction

What led you to pick up this book? I read this for the In Their Shoes reading challenge and also because I'm a big fan of Steinbeck's writing.

Summarize the book, but don't give away the ending! In the autumn of 1960, at the age of 58, John Steinbeck has just recovered from an unspecified "serious illness", but what is clearly a heart attack or heart disease. He's advised that his health is fragile and he needs to take it easy for a while. His response to that is: "Road trip!" Refusing to surrender his manhood for "elderly babyhood", he rigs up a camper to a pickup truck (which he dubs Rocinante, after Don Quixote's horse) packs it full of supplies, grabs up his 10-year-old French poodle, Charley and takes off to discover America again. He goes up the east coast to Maine, tries to enter Canada briefly in a humorous but maddening episode, then works his way to Chicago. He breaks the trip there then heads north again to Minnesota, to find Sauk Centre, Sinclair Lewis' birthplace, to Montana (the state he declares that he's in love with) then down the west coast to California. He finishes the trip with Thanksgiving in Texas, then a brief but dispiriting tour of the south, particularly New Orleans.

What did you like best about the book? I love it when Steinbeck is narrating in the first person; it's one of the things I loved about East of Eden. He's rugged and plainspoken, but overriding all of that is a sense of delicacy, which many people wrongly put down as sentimentality or preachiness.

Have you read any other books by this author? What did you think of his books? Oh yes! As I mentioned above, I'm a big Steinbeck fan and have been for 30 years. So far, I've read: Tortilla Flat, Of Mice And Men, The Grapes Of Wrath, the play version of The Moon Is Down, The Wayward Bus, The Pearl, East of Eden, The Winter Of Our Discontent, and Journal Of A Novel: The East Of Eden Letters. Many people have to read Steinbeck in school; the only one I read there was The Pearl, which was my introduction to Steinbeck. That's not the book that made me a fan, but I didn't mind it. It's one of my goals to one day complete the Steinbeck canon.

What did you think of the main character? That would be Steinbeck, of course. There's an almost elegiac feeling to his writing as he progresses across the country. He's very much aware of his own mortality. In a 2006 interview, his son Thom mentioned that he was surprised that his stepmother (Elaine, Steinbeck's third wife) let Steinbeck go on that trip. In his condition, he could have dropped dead at any moment. He didn't have another 10 years left, dying 8 years later in 1968.

Although on one level one has to admire Steinbeck's stubborn individuality and desire to face the rest of life on his own terms, a strong current of alcohol dependence runs through the book. Steinbeck stocks up his liquor cabinet with a good half-dozen types of alcohol before he gets too far down the road. (I did notice that although he planned and laid in supplies well in advance of the trip, he did this particular shopping after he and Elaine said their goodbyes in New York.) Along the way, he uses the alcohol to strike up acquaintances with people he meets. Often he'll break down any regional barriers or diffidence or simply facilitate conversation with a dollop of Old Granddad or some applejack in his company's coffee.

Steinbeck is kind and solicitous to his travel companion, Charley -- especially after Charley falls ill with prostratis during the journey. I saw a picture of Steinbeck and Charley elsewhere on the Internet, and that was a really big poodle. Steinbeck mentions that when Charley sits up on the seat next to him, "his head was almost as high as mine". This is a foreshadowing of sorts. When Steinbeck and Charley do their southern leg of the trip, people will mistake Charley for a black person at first, putting it the crudest terms.

I really enjoyed even the simplest interactions between Steinbeck and Charley. I loved how the dog would make a noise that sounded like "Ftt" whenever he was hungry or needed to go to the bathroom. Sadly, Charley wouldn't last too much longer after Steinbeck's return home, dying in 1961 at the age of 11.

Any other particularly interesting characters? The father and son team from near Spokane were a hoot. The son reads The New Yorker, wants to be a hairdresser, and has dreams of living in New York, much to his father's annoyance. They both want to know Steinbeck's opinion, and he gravely weighs in on the matter. Also memorable were the racist "Cheerleaders" in New Orleans, but not in a positive way.

Share a quote from the book: "Having a companion fixes you in time and that the present, but when the quality of aloneness settles down, past, present and future all flow together." (Steinbeck made this note during the trip, wrapped it around a bottle of ketchup and secured it with a rubber band.)

Steinbeck mischievously describes a low-rent, hole-in-the-wall motel: "No effort had been spared to make the cabins uncomfortable and ugly. The bed was lumpy, the walls dirty yellow, the curtains like the underskirts of a slattern. And the close room had a mixed aroma of mice and moisture, mold and the smell of old,old dust, but the sheets were clean and a little airing got rid of the memories of old inhabitants."

Share a favorite scene from the book: Again, an interaction with Charley, who has peed on every available tree from coast to coast, but refuses to "salute" a California redwood even after Steinbeck strongly encourages him: "Look, Charley. It's the tree of all trees. It's the end of the Quest." Charley never does comply, much to Steinbeck's bemusement.

Another favorite scene occurs while Steinbeck is in Chicago, waiting for his room at the Ambassador Hotel to be readied. He is dishevelled from camping and driving so many days, and the management temporarily puts him in a room that has been recently vacated so he won't linger in the lobby and mess up the ambiance of their class joint. While in the temporary room, Steinbeck forgets about the bath and nap he'd so eagerly anticipated and starts to notice what the former occupant of the room left behind. Doing a little detective work, "Lonesome Harry" (as Steinbeck calls him)'s short tenure in that room is revealed in almost minute detail.

What about the ending? John Steinbeck set out to rediscover America, and the end of his journey plunged him into disillusionment and disgust. According to him, the trip began long before he left New York, and as a result of this disappointment, ended long before he actually reached home. A veteran literary trouper, Steinbeck wisely tries not to leave his reader stranded in his blue funk, and valiantly comes back with a gag of sorts about being lost, which is a common recurrence in the book, but although the effort was appreciated, I was left with a rueful feeling. While I was sorry that things hadn't gone well, this bumpy ending gave the book an honest feeling, and I liked it even better because it wasn't all tied up neatly.


Anonymous said...

This sounds wonderful. You've made me want to read the book - well done!

I have read three Steinbecks: The Grapes of Wrath; Of Mice and Men; and East of Eden. I love them all.

Les said...

Wonderful review!! I read this years ago and have always wanted to take a road trip with my husband and dog. Someday. Until then, I need to re-read this marvelous book. As I recall, it was quite humorous in spots.