Saturday, April 10, 2010

Travels With Charley

When I was in school (that is, elementary, junior high, and high school), teachers used to use "ice-breaker" activities on the first day to get us to integrate and talk to each other.  One inevitable question that was oh-so-creative (NOT!) was "Name any person, dead or alive, that you would like to meet and explain why."  Most people said "Jesus" or "My great-grandma" (I originate from a religious and unimaginative town, what can I say?).

If you asked me that question now, I'd say, without a doubt, John Steinbeck.  If there was any way to bring someone back to life, I'd rush over to John's grave/ashes and do whatever it took to resurrect him because that man is a genius.  And I want to know what he thinks of our world today - so badly.  It doesn't have to be a long conversation, but one that should be had over a cup of hot, steaming coffee (preferably spiked with something, as it seems that was his preference, especially when on the road) and maybe at a diner (because that's just how I envision it to happen). 

What has sparked this impassioned longing, you ask?  I'd always been a fan of Steinbeck's fiction: in junior high and high school I studied the requisite Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, The Pearl, The Red Pony, etc. but until now, I hadn't dipped into his non-fiction work - and oh, what I've been missing.  Earlier this year, I read A Russian Journal, in which he documented his travels through the then Soviet Union during the Cold War with the acclaimed war photographer, Robert Capa.  I was particularly struck by his insight and interpretations of the people and culture around him which were then brilliantly offset by his wry and unparalleled, witty sense of humour.

Although that book struck a real chord with me, as I've developed a real interest in Russia since visiting briefly in 2006 (and reading too much Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and listening to too much Borodin and Tchaikovsky), Travels With Charley hit home the most because, well, it was about my home: America.  Not just America - America through Steinbeck's eyes, which is, suffice to say, perhaps more precious than anyone else's view.

The introduction by Jay Parini describes the book as "prophetic" - and it is.  First published in 1962, it's difficult to believe that Steinbeck would have/could have predicted the route America was heading in, but somehow, he did.  And though his tone throughout is mostly that of an amused (sometimes bemused) observer, there's an underlying anger or frustration that sits heavily on the heart of the book - especially in the final pages, when he describes the height of racial tensions in the South during that time.

Perhaps the most endearing feature of the "travel-log," if you will, is Charley, Steinbeck's companion and beloved French poodle (who was well and truly born and raised in France).  Steinbeck describes him thusly: "He is a very big poodle, of a color called bleu, and he is blue when he is clean.  Charley is a born diplomat.  He prefers negotiation to fighting and properly so, since he is very bad at fighting ... [he] has a roar like a lion, designed to conceal from night-wandering strangers the fact that he couldn't bite his way out of a cornet de papier." Then later: Charley is a tall dog.  As he sat in the seat beseide me, his head was almost as high as mine.  He put his nose close to my ear and said, 'Ftt.'  He is the only dog I ever knew who could pronounce the consonant 'F' ... the word 'Ftt' usually means he would like to salute a bush or a tree."  Even if you're not a bit interested in America or American culture, you've got to read the book for the antidotes about Charley.  Trust me, it's totally worthwhile.

While some things have obviously changed in the United States, much of the culture and sentiment that Steinbeck describes throughout remains the same today, which is particularly interesting and at times, deeply disturbing.  Overall, I promise that it's a great read - perfect for picking up and putting down, mulling over, and discussing with friends.

If you do read it (or have read), I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Photo source 


  1. OY. Sadly I can't stand Steinbeck. Several people already hate me for that, feel free to do it too :( I really tried - read Of Mice and Men 2 or 3 times for school and hated it, hated The Grapes of Wrath and The Pearl just as much. A few months ago I picked up The Winter of Our Discontent thinking I should give him one last objective try (and mainly because I really like the title - thanks Shakespeare) and guess what? I hated it.
    I just find his writing cold, impersonal and cheesy.

    Ah sorry didn't mean to go on and on, all my American friends actually love him so I'm wondering if there's not some sort of cultural thing going on there. Maybe it doesn't hit as close to home for me?

  2. I'm glad you have such a strong ADVAH-ersion to him, that's what makes us unique and different! To be honest, I haven't re-visited his fiction in a long while, so my opinion may have changed, but I remember really enjoying The Pearl and The Red Pony. Not so much Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath, but mostly because we studied that in school and school has a way of ruining everything and anything for you. I'm pretty sure though, that you'd enjoy Travels With Charley, because it's entirely different to his fiction and the voice throughout is hilarious.


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