Have dog, will travel

John Steinbeck hits the road in ‘Travels With Charley’

In 1960 at the age of 58, Steinbeck had already published his last novel (although he didn’t know it), and had less than a decade to live (which he also didn’t know but probably suspected). He was restless, a feeling exacerbated by having spent the past 20 years living in New York and traveling widely in Europe, far from his native Northern California. As he says in the opening pages of Travels With Charley in Search of America (1962, Viking Press), he wondered if he really knew his own country after all that time. So he set out in a custom-built pickup-camper to find out.

The real star of the book, of course, is in the title: Charley Dog, a standard poodle, who Steinbeck clearly dotes on. Every anecdote affirms that Steinbeck is a dog person through and through, and his descriptions of his “conversations” with Charley will be familiar to dog companions everywhere.

It is my experience that in some areas Charley is more intelligent than I am, but in others he is abysmally ignorant. He can’t read, can’t drive a car, and has no grasp of mathematics. But in his own field of endeavor, which he was now practicing, the slow, imperial smelling over and anointing of an area, he has no peer. Of course his horizons are limited, but how wide are mine?

John Steinbeck

The consensus among literary scholars is that Steinbeck’s account was heavily fictionalized, with inconsistencies in the timeline of his travels and dialogue that doesn’t quite ring true. Still, he seemed to capture, and brood about, many of the ways that America was changing in those decades after the end of World War II. Cultural homogenization, from music charts to chain stores and restaurants, was accelerating. Cities were sprawling, the environment was being plundered for profit, hard manual labor was being outsourced to immigrants. And of course the fight for racial equality was coming to a boil.

To that last point: Along the way, Steinbeck deals with bouts of illness, both his own and Charley’s, and automotive mishaps. But the only situation for which Steinbeck seems unable to find a wryly amusing observation is the segment of his journey that passes through the Deep South. He stops in New Orleans to witness in person a situation that made national news: The ugly crowds shouting slurs and profanity at a young black girl outside a white school that was being forcibly desegregated. During the rest of his trip through Louisiana and Alabama he presents conversations with a couple of white men and a couple of black men that serve to cover the gamut of emotions and opinions. The tidiness of encountering a prime example of each set of beliefs was one of the least believable bits of the book for me, but his intention to show the variety of viewpoints and the wide gulfs between them rings true.

Really, so many of the observations Steinbeck made over the course of his journey could be written today. In that sense, it’s a little depressing how little has changed. On the other hand, I had fun imagining how different his trip would have been if he had an iPhone in his pocket.

I’ll leave you with Steinbeck’s gentle skewering of the Lone Star State:

Texas is the only state that came into the Union by treaty. It retains the right to secede at will. We have heard them threaten to secede so often that I formed an enthusiastic organization — The American Friends for Texas Succession. This stops the subject. They want to be able to secede but they don’t want anyone to want them to.

John Steinbeck

Read it before you see it

Long before it was a movie, ‘The Goldfinch’ cast a spell on its readers

With the recent release of a major motion picture based on Donna Tartt’s runaway bestseller, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit my initial review of the book. This review was originally written in 2014.

Wow, what a sprawling, magnificent, compelling story Donna Tartt tells in The Goldfinch (2013, Little, Brown) that is about so much more than the painting referred to in the title. It’s about art, beauty, fear, abandonment, carelessness, remorse, redemption, sorrow and joy. It’s about the value of friendship, the pain of loss, the holes that life leaves in all of us and the ways we choose to fill them up.

Theo Decker is 13 years old when a tragedy leaves him without parents. He is taken in by the family of a school friend, and just when it seems his life has begun to stabilize he is uprooted and set on a path that leads him from New York City to Las Vegas to Amsterdam and back again. He bounces around between various sets of parents, surrogate and otherwise, some of whom are loving but all of whom seem incapable of giving him the sort of focused attention that could help anchor him in the world around him. Instead, he is forced to use an inanimate object — that painting pictured on the cover — to be his touchstone. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t enough to keep him safe in a world filled with so many easy ways to flirt with danger.

The story that Theo tells is long, involved, intricate, densely layered with events that seem loaded with meaning beyond what they or he can bear. The further into the story I ventured, the stronger was my feeling of constant low-level anxiety for what would become of Theo. It seemed impossible from the very beginning that he would live happily ever after — that anyone in his world would — and every page I turned ratcheted up the tension.

I didn’t always like Theo. Often I disapproved of the choices he made and the things he did, but that didn’t stop me from desperately wanting him to find the sanctuary that he seemed to spend his whole life looking for. I didn’t always like the people he surrounded himself with. Or perhaps more accurately, I didn’t always like the things he did with and to the people who surrounded him, and I didn’t always like how even the most sympathetic of them still failed utterly at providing a safe harbor for a lost soul. And yet I still hoped, right up until the end, that each of them would be redeemed, that everything would work out, that everyone would — finally! — do the right thing for themselves and for Theo.

The Goldfinch isn’t a perfect book. It’s long, almost unbearably long, made bearable for me only by the fact of its being an ebook and thus not an intimidating physical chunk to remind me of just how much story was left to tell. There are sections that go on and on and don’t seem to do much to advance either the plot or the characters’ development. There are a few too many supporting characters who are sketchily drawn and serve mainly as a placeholder for a group stereotype. But always, there was some redeeming action or insight waiting on the other side, rewarding me for pushing on.

I finished reading The Goldfinch yesterday, and even as I’ve moved on to my next book I find myself thinking about Theo at random times during the day, as if he were someone I know. I recall particular passages or scenes and think about how often Tartt chooses to work against the expected tropes. The chilly upper-class woman whose family takes young Theo in turns out to genuinely like him and treat him as part of the family even long after he’s grown up. None of the most important characters are purely saints or sinners; just as in real life people turn out to be more complicated than that. Just as this book is more complicated than a story about a painting.