Sunday, May 1, 2016

Book Review: Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley
In 1960, John Steinbeck set off in his modified pickup truck with his poodle, Charley, and spent the next two and a half months travelling across America. The journey occurred in the twilight of Steinbeck's life, and appropriately, he departed just after summer had rolled away to die. His ostensible reason for making the trip was to rediscover something about America, its people, and its character. In Travels with Charley: In Search of America, Steinbeck chronicles his journey.

I've read a number of Steinbeck's classic novels over the years and felt certain that his talents as a memoirist would be just as rewarding. I wasn't disappointed. A kind of double appeal existed when picking up the book—no doubt Steinbeck's spare, concise writing style would be in evidence, but I also felt a voyeuristic attraction in reading about the exploits of one of America's most successful novelists of the 20th century as he wandered the highways and back roads searching for interesting stories to tell. But Steinbeck wisely decided to remain as anonymous as possible during his months on the road. It's impossible to avoid making any references to oneself when writing a memoir, but he at least removed an angle that could have resulted in some fawning and disingenuous interactions with people he met along the way.

When Steinbeck departed with his dog in the fall of 1960, he only had eight years left to live. Of course, he didn't know that at the time, though he did know the mortal bell was tolling not too far off in the distance. At the beginning of the book, he mentions his recent bout of ill health:
During the previous winter I had become rather seriously ill with one of those carefully named difficulties which are the whispers of approaching age. When I came out of it I received the usual lecture about slowing up, losing weight, limiting the cholesterol intake.
This marks the beginning of one of many extended passages that are interspersed throughout the book and which focus on various subjects. In this particular passage, he goes on to discuss the fact that he does not want to become dependent on others as he gets older. Like most people who have lived to a reasonable age, Steinbeck had already acquired a lifetime of wisdom when he set out on his journey. But unlike most people, he was able to distill that wisdom into engaging and entertaining prose. As with many of his musings on the world and the ways of human beings, his piece about refusing to regress into an infantile state as old age looms, had me nodding in agreement.

It would be his last lap around the country he loved so much and which provided him with the inspiration for the books he wrote. And yet, he never seems quite at ease with what he finds, and he regularly questions the direction in which he sees society heading. He is never bitter, only philosophical, and the tone often reminds me of a theme that is so common in many old western movies. Everyone reaches a stage in life when the world has moved on, and the only thing left to do is settle accounts and say goodbye. Those tales usually strike a chord with anyone who has ever yearned for something better, learned about loss, or faced down their own mortality. Like those movies, Steinbeck's words are often graceful and poetic as they simultaneously celebrate and lament the human condition.

The nostalgia that comes through in a book written more than 50 years ago is palpably different than in one whose author looks back in time and tries to recapture the past. A certain turn of phrase that no longer exists, the world frozen at that particular place and time, and the knowledge that the author too has long since passed away, all add a special kind of wistfulness to the reading experience.  Also, with the intervening years, you can judge just how prescient Steinbeck was with his analyses and predictions. Indeed, he was very accurate in much of what he wrote. Of course, it was hardly rocket science to foresee that cities would keep growing, the local flavour of many regions would start to disappear, and the reckless, predatory approach to the environment would take its toll.

Steinbeck travels through the northern states until he hits the west coast and then drives down through California, across Arizona and New Mexico and into Texas. Finally, he enters the troubled southern states on his final stretch before returning home. Along the way, he reflects on many subjects—both those specific to whichever state he is in at the time and those universal ideas that all people can relate to. And many of his observations are naturally related to travelling, and specifically travelling alone. Anyone who has done any solo travelling will understand the roller coaster of emotions, the loneliness, and the litany of serendipitous encounters that can hammer a person into a magical, otherworldly state. In this passage, Steinbeck echoes the truism that most travellers internalize after an extended and unscheduled period of wandering: no matter what you think you know beforehand, you can never start to understand what a place is about until you are there:
It is possible, even probable, to be told a truth about a place, to accept it, to know it and at the same time not know anything about it. I'd never been to Wisconsin, but all my life I had heard about it, had eaten its cheeses, some of them as good as any in the world. And I must have seen pictures.Everyone must have. Why then was I unprepared for the beauty of this region, for its variety of field and hill, forest, lake?
...I don't know how it is in other seasons, the summers may reek and rock with the heat, the winters may groan with dismal cold, but when I saw it for the first and only time in early October, the air was rich with butter-colored sunlight, not fuzzy but crisp and clear, so that every frost-gay tree was set off, the rising hills were not compounded, but alone and separate.
In a somewhat related vein, he describes the notion that dictates many people's decisions when they are travelling: the need to experience things in a scripted way that will be appreciated by friends and family back home:
I could hear them say, "You mean you were that near to Yellowstone and didn't go? You must be crazy." Again it might have been the American tendency in travel. One goes, not so much to see, but to tell afterwards.
Many of Steinbeck's observations are not specifically related to travelling, but still ring true. For example, in this section, he talks about the disappointment of trying to turn someone else on to an experience that has given you pleasure:
I felt the rage and hatred one has toward non-appreciators, toward those who through ignorance destroy a treasured plan.
Now, in the above sentence, Steinbeck is referring to his dog Charley not appreciating the majestic splendour of a redwood tree, but still, the sentiment is a good one. And speaking of Charley; as the only other main character in the book besides Steinbeck, he gets a fair amount of ink. Steinbeck clearly loves his dog and any pet lover will enjoy those comments about his furry travel companion.

As an accomplished novelist, Steinbeck understood the importance of relaying the interactions he had with people he met along the way. Those passages in which the writing shifts from narrative summary to specific scenes have a timeless immediacy and are some of the best parts of the book. In the following scene, Steinbeck describes the Badlands in North Dakota and a taciturn character he meets at the side of a road:
Presently I saw a man leaning on a two-strand barbed-wired fence, the wires fixed not to posts but to crooked tree limbs stuck in the ground. The man wore a dark hat, and jeans and long jacket washed palest blue with lighter places at knees and elbows. His pale eyes were frosted with sun glare and his lips scaly as snakeskin.
...I pulled up to speak to him, saw his eyes wash over Rocinante, sweep up the details, and then retire into their sockets. And I found I had nothing to say to him.
All books, not just novels, thrive on conflict and drama, and there are many pages that will keep readers following along in excited anticipation. The direction of Steinbeck's trip meant that he visited the South just before he returned home (or maybe he had an inkling that events in that part of the country might provide some good drama and planned his journey with that in mind). Regardless, the descriptions of racial tensions in New Orleans and other locations, and the deft character sketches of people he meets in the South provide some of the most compelling reading in the book. For the most part, Steinbeck makes the racists he encounters look like scared buffoons, though he also meets a number of people sickened by the civil rights' abuses that were going on in their midst at the time.

Travels with Charley has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity recently, somewhat in part because of questions regarding the authenticity of both the timeline involved and Steinbeck's interactions with various people along the way. This writer (a former journalist) in particular has devoted a lot of time to researching Steinbeck's book with the goal of demonstrating that things just couldn't have happened exactly the way Steinbeck claimed they did. Some of the information on his website is interesting (and he has written a book about his research), but the whole underlying premise of trying to prove that Steinbeck took liberties, created some composite characters and even cooked up some dialogue, just seems rather pointless. Although I suppose piggy-backing a book on the legacy of one of the most famous writers of the past hundred years has potential for generating publicity.

In my experience, all non-fiction writers play with the truth to varying degrees. Especially in travel writing, where an obvious narrative doesn't always present itself, I have often found myself wondering how things happened to fit so nicely in certain travel memoirs. Of course, readers expect that things happen basically how they are presented in non-fiction books. But most people would not be outraged to learn that the dialogue they read in a travelogue is not exactly how it was spoken. If writers presented conversations verbatim, they would be unreadable. The idea, repeated by the writer linked to above, as well as others, including Steinbeck's son (who is on record with a few nasty digs at his deceased father—not sure what the story is there) that because Steinbeck was a novelist, it should be expected that he created large swaths of Travels with Charley out of whole cloth. I disagree. I think the only expectation is that whatever changes another writer would have inevitably made wouldn't have resulted in a book that was as well written or entertaining as Travels with Charley. No doubt some of the claims about authenticity go beyond manufactured dialogue. But if Steinbeck put in the time on the road, visited the places he says he visited, and maintained the spirit of conversations he had with the people he met, I don't have much problem with a few embellishments.

However, after saying all that, I still feel there are some rather clich├ęd passages in Travels with Charley. For example, as Steinbeck sits in a hotel room vacated by another guest but not yet cleaned by hotel staff, he tries to imagine the recently departed guest based on the state of the room and some scraps of paper he left behind. It comes across as rather unbelievable. But then, life often is unbelievable. Wouldn't it be interesting if those sections of the book that seem to lack realism were in fact fully authentic, while others that attracted no scrutiny were invented? Yet, even though the hotel scene feels a bit forced, the stark loneliness of the passage combined with the prurient interest it elicits makes it effective and memorable on another level.

Travels with Charley was released in 1962 and was Steinbeck's last major, original work published while he was still alive, and fittingly, it spent some time as the New York Times number one bestseller. More than fifty years later, Steinbeck's observations, wisdom and simple eloquence make Travels with Charley a book well worth reading.

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