I love Steinbeck and I love travelogues, so I had high hopes going into this one, and thankfully it did not disappoint. It’s the first of his non-fiction work that I’ve tried, and I’m excited to read more. His fiction is often quite dark, and while there certainly is humour, he has to hold it back a bit to maintain the tone. He’s free to let loose in this book, and the result is a continuously amusing account of his trip around America in 1960.
Charley, full name Charles le Chien, is an elderly black French poodle, and Steinbeck decides to take him on the trip for a little companionship. They have a sweet relationship, and I really love how he wrote about Charley, getting in his head and finding motivation for each action. It really brought him forward as a character, rather than just another generic dog companion.
The two of them hop in his camper truck, named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse, and leaves his home in Long Island. He drives up New England with a brief stop at the Canadian border and then back down and westwards across the country. His trip takes him right over to the west coast, down to California, through Texas and into the deep south, and then back up home, essentially completing a loop of the entire country. Steinbeck said he’d spent his life writing about America, but he had lost touch with the country and needed to reconnect.
I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation – a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every states I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.
At one point, Steinbeck stops in Texas for a ‘Thanksgiving orgy’. In Canada, orgies are more of an Easter tradition, so I was briefly taken aback. I’m still unsure if this was a common usage of the term in the 60s or if Steinbeck just decided to employ it to give the Thanksgiving party a sense of vulgar gluttony. It was a meal of Chili con Carne, and I feel like the two images don’t mix well. I read quite a lot of older literature, so I’m used to outdated vernacular. I don’t give a second thought when Watson ejaculates mid-conversation or Batman pulls a boner, but this was my first encounter with an innocuous holiday orgy.
There were scenes in this that did feel embellished, conversations and scenarios that seemed to fit a little too perfectly. After finishing, I read a bit more on the book and there is some confusion over what is and isn’t fictionalized. He was 58 with some health issues when he left on this trip, apparently against the recommendation of his doctor, so many people believe he only slept under the stars a few times and mostly stayed in expensive hotels.
Regardless of how much of this is true, it’s still a fantastic read. I love how he writes, his insights into human nature, and how he manages to find comedy in the mundane. The chapters near the end detailing the racist attitudes he found down south, and his witnessing the New Orleans school desegregation crisis in which a group of middle-class housewives calling themselves The Cheerleaders would scream vitriol at the black children trying to attend school, was heartbreaking to read. I obviously knew these things happened, but I often forget just how recent it was. The young girl, Ruby Bridges, is only 63 today. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that traces of that hate, so strong that grown adults would scream like animals at those poor children, can still be found in America today.
Beyond my failings as a racist, I knew I was not wanted in the South. When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not want witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble.
I love Steinbeck even more after reading this. It also left me wanting to jump in a truck and travel the country with my dog. Although, if I were to do such a thing, I would also be secretly staying in comfortable hotels the entire trip, if only to be well-rested for the Thanksgiving orgy.