Sunday, March 08, 2009

Travels with Charley

Steinbeck, John. 1962. Travels with Charley.

Travels With Charley is my second John Steinbeck book. And it was a delight to read. (In fact I stayed up with this one because I just couldn't put it down!) I recommend it for those that fall into one or more of the following categories: dog lovers--particularly dog owners; travel-lovers--particularly those that dream of taking a cross-country road trip across the U.S.; history-lovers--particularly those that are interested in America's culture and politics; literature-lovers--particularly those that love nice-and-steady prose that satisfies. I love the reflectiveness of the book; it's very straightforward. For those unfamiliar with the premise, it is the story of a man (famous writer though he may be) and his dog as they travel across the United States in 1960. It's also very quotable. I tagged passage after passage after passage. Here's how it starts off:

When I very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job.

It continues,
"When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult. He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from. Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and destination. And last he must implement the journey. How to go, what to take, how long to stay. This part of the process is invariable and immortal. I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teenagers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it. Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brassbound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it. I feel better now, having said this, although only those who have experienced it will understand it."

Travels with Charley is an intelligent novel; but it's an accessible one as well. Steinbeck might have been smart; he might have had a way with words--but he knows how to tell a story. There's nothing pretentious about it; it's meant to be read and enjoyed. I have several favorite bits. One of the more humorous ones is when Steinbeck is telling about Charley's reaction to the bears in Yellowstone National Park! Though he was in the truck--named Rocinante after Don Quixote's horse--Charley was determined to show those bears what for!

Less than a mile from the entrance I saw a bear beside the road, and it ambled out as though to flag me down. Instantly a change came over Charley. He shrieked wit rage. His lips flared, showing wicked teeth that have some trouble with a dog biscuit. He screeched insults at the bear, which hearing the bear reared up and seemed to me to overtop Rocinante. Frantically I rolled the windows shut and, swinging quickly to the left, grazed the animal, then scuttled on while Charley raved and ranted beside me, describing in detail what he would do to that bear if he could get at him. I was never so astonished in my life. to the best of my knowledge Charley had never seen a bear, and in his whole history had showed great tolerance for every living thing. Besides all this, Charley is a coward, so deep-seated a coward that he has developed a technique for concealing it. And yet he showed every evidence of wanting to get out and murder a bear that outweighed him a thousand to one. I don't understand it. A little farther along two bears showed up, and the effect was doubled. Charley became a maniac. He leaped all over me, he cursed and growled, snarled and screamed. I didn't know he had the ability to snarl. Where did he learn it? Bears were in good supply, and the road became a nightmare. For the first time in his life Charley resisted reason, even resisted a cuff on the ear. He became a primitive killer lusting for the blood of his enemy, and up to this moment he had had no enemies....

And how could I resist his passages about Texas? I couldn't! From his, "Once you are in Texas it seems to take forever to get out, and some people never make it" to his, "Most areas in the world may be placed in latitude and longitude, described chemically in their earth, sky and water, rooted and fuzzed over with identified flora and peopled with known fauna, and there's an end to it. Then there are others where fable, myth, preconception, love, longing, or prejudice step in and so distort a cool, clear appraisal that a kind of high-colored magical confusion takes permanent hold. Greece is such an area, and those parts of England where King Arthur walked. One quality of such places as I am trying to define is that a very large part of them is personal and subjective. And surely Texas is such a place....What I am trying to say is that there is no physical or geographical unity in Texas. Its unity lies in the mind. And this is not only in Texans. The word Texas becomes a symbol to everyone in the world. There's no question that this Texas-of-the-mind fable is often synthetic, sometimes untruthful, and frequently romantic, but that in no way diminishes its strength as a symbol."

But perhaps the most significant section covers Steinbeck's travels into New Orleans to witness the "Cheerleaders" protesting the integration of the schools. You can only read it in awe that it really and truly happened. That hate and prejudice really was so dominant, so loud, so jarring, so front-and-center.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews
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Erika Powell 7:37 PM  

YAY! I am so glad you read it, and so very very glad you enjoyed it!

Wendy 7:51 PM  

Becky - terrific review of this fantastic book. I love Steinbeck's writing and this book did not disappoint me. I am definitely both a travel lover and a dog lover and I loved everything about this book. Glad to see you also enjoyed it!

Becky 7:56 PM  

Erika, I should be thanking you for recommending it! It was such a great book!

Wendy, I thought of you when I was reading it. Good to know you've read and enjoyed it :)

Unknown 9:08 AM  

You've almost convinced me that Steinbeck's okay to read. Almost. (Or, maybe it's just that I'm not quite brave enough yet...)

Sandra 1:34 PM  

I'm so glad you enjoyed this one, I knew you would. I read it not long after it was published (in the 70's) and it was an eye opener for me-as well as a fun read, of course. It's nice to discovery oldies but goodies. Thank you for reviewing it, it brought back good memories for me.

RonK 3:01 PM  

For us people from the west Steinbeck speaks to us in a way that eastern, middle American and southern writers never do. Steinbeck presents the good, the bad, and the horrible without romanticism.


I recently found Steinbeck's travelogue in an op-shop & have been greatly impressed by the complexities and nuances of his writing. In your review you focus on his humour and tend to discount his scathing eye on what America has become since his last journey through the heartland.

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