Trivialities with Charley

Feb 28, 2002
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Steinbeck, for crying out loud.

Cons:Not a clear picture of America in early 60´s

The Bottom Line: Read his novels. They are great. This seems as much fiction as it does fact.


TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY: In Search of America

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) R.I.P. was one of America¨s great novelists. A Nobel Prize winner in 1962, the same year he published TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, but the book was not related to the award. Steinbeck wrote several popular novels, including OF MICE AND MEN; THE GRAPES OF WRATH; and EAST OF EDEN, these stories among others center around his boyhood home of Salinas, California, a rich agricultural area near the coast and it´s shipping. The first two were written and published during the depression and that attitude is reflected masterfully in his words. Steinbeck is without question an American treasure.

That said, I do not recommend TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY: In Search of America. While the book is readable, there is nothing in it worth remembering. A great novelist does not necessarily make a great journalist. I read a nice review about his marine biology adventure in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, (1951). It sounds pretty good. Maybe the years, the alcohol, the subject matter, or just life brought a different result in TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY. Perhaps he expected to and could not find a touchstone to revolve around. “In Search of America”?- - - It was a fruitless search. Over 10,000 miles and 38 states left him with several anecdotes, but little wisdom.

Steinbeck said that he decided to write TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY because he “had not felt the country for twenty-five years.” He discovered that he did not know his own country and that he was writing from a memory of the past. He had become famous and traveled the world as well as the cities of America. But these were short visits, like post cards in his mind. He wrote that people around you change when you become famous. They become “something they are not under normal circumstances.” Steinbeck used this as the reason for traveling alone, but I think there is much more to it. I feel that his celebrity changed him more than it had the general public. I think that is the major reason this book fails to identify with the America of 1960.

Steinbeck comes off as a snob. Of all people! He is quick to be offended, but at the same time shows an elitist attitude when dealing with the regular Joes. He conveys nothing special and positive about most of the people he meets. While in the south he empathizes with the Negro in a country club liberal way. A black man that he picks up on the road shrinks in fear when Steinbeck asks him racial questions. He finally realizes that the guy is more interested in his own safety than in answering volatile questions from some strange white guy.

As a “New York Jew” type, Steinbeck “braves” an appearance at a much publicized daily demonstration by New Orleans rednecks against school integration by using a British accent.. The demonstrations were lead by a sleazy group of middle-aged women who the press had dubbed The Cheerleaders. These women wallowed in the limelight as they screamed vicious epithets at a single little black girl who was brought to school and protected by a small army of U.S. marshals. A disgusting display and one that could have been explored. Instead, Steinbeck rails against virtually everything southern and the southern whites in general. He has quick praise for the courageous white man who brings his child to the school amidst the screaming and jeering. Shades of To Kill a Mockingbird here.

As it happens, on the street he runs across an older refined white gentleman with white hair who cites an obscure 42 word quote from Robert John Cresswell. They retire to coffee and have a Socratic discussion of the southern racial problem. Questions left unanswered and the world goes on. Well, I don´t buy this for a minute. It is just the most glaring example of Steinbeck flowering up OR making up an encounter for his own gain. I´m not a writer and I don´t even play one on TV, but isn´t dramatic license supposed to be limited to fiction. Too many conversations sound as if they were taken from a Made-for-TV movie. Granted, he was relating his encounters from memory, but give me a break.

Even his dog is a snob. Charley A.K.A., A.K.C. Charles le Chien, (Charles the dog) is a 10 year-old large french poodle born at the outskirts of Paris who responds to commands in French. Charley loves to travel, but does not like people fawning over him. Steinbeck explains that Charley knows that he is a dog and expects to be treated like one, not like a cute baby. Damn, since a poodle, Tobito, came with my marriage, and I love him to death, I was beginning to question my lifelong prejudices about poodles and uneasiness with their owners. In my world, Steinbeck set the Poodle Or Owner´s Pride (POOP) struggle back at least a generation. A snob dog is a bad dog in my book.

Steinbeck probably was talking about guys like me when he wrote how Charley facilitated the initiation of conversations when people would approach him and say, “ That´s a nice dog, what kind of degree is it.” Haw haw, yuck, yuck, them big city folk sure have our number, yuck, yuck.

Steinbeck follows that hoot with a paragraph quoted yesterday at classicquotes@topica.com in honor of his birthdate. For more info feel free to peruse my earlier review: quick classic, anyone? At http://www.epinions.com/content_2002690180.

The quote is as follows:

“The techniques of opening conversation are universal. I knew long ago and rediscovered that the best way to attract attention, help, and conversation is to be lost. A man who seeing his mother starving to death on a path kicks her in the stomach to clear the way, will cheerfully devote several hours of his time giving wrong directions to a total stranger who claims to be lost.”

Steinbeck and Charley travel in a custom made ¾ ton pickup with a custom camper, built like the cabin of a small boat. Remember, this was circa 1960 and people pulled trailers behind them. Steinbeck used his notoriety to get this unique vehicle manufactured. Very powerful, but almost as easy to handle as a passenger car.

As to the truck, “I named it Rocinante, which you will remember was the name of Don Quixote´s horse.” Later, “I was advised that the name Rocinante painted on the side .... in sixteenth-century Spanish script would cause curiosity .... I do not know how many people recognized the name, but surely no one ever asked about.” First, for a guy who earlier had professed the necessity of anonymity, this is a little overboard. Second, the whole thing screams to me, SNOB!

Steinbeck runs into a brusque waitress that he doesn´t tip, an incompetent veterinarian, a man who doesn´t want his son to go to hairdressing school, a bumbling obstinate cook and waitress at a German restaurant, and a security guard who has a wife that wants to move to the city. A wretched crew and all in all, a boring one, too.

I know that I did a lot of ripping on a great writer, but Travels with Charley a poor example of Steinbeck´s writing. Picture Hunter S. Thompson doing Charles Kuralt. It does not work. A bad fit.

In short, this dog don´t hunt.

This epinion is the my contribution to the Steinbeck 100th birthday writeoff hosted by Stephen Murray. Thank you Steve, I was honored to be invited. The other participants are Deaser26, Ed-Grover, Ed_Williamson, eplovejoy, Jankp, Macresarf1, Mridula, and TomBarnes. Sorry about being a day late, but Steinbeck WAS born on the last day of February, right.


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