Those other books are good, great even, but there is something about them doesn't really resonate with me. That is particularly true with Grapes of Wrath. Maybe the themes are too big, or maybe my brain is too small. Either way, I feel awash in the prose and somewhat buffetted by them. Not so with Travels with Charley.
Travels with Charley is, as far as I am concerned miscast. One usually finds it in the amongst the fiction of Steinbeck. It is not fiction, but a travelogue. In the early 60's Steinbeck decided to become reaquainted with America. He figured, and rightly so, that since he wrote about America and the American experience he should get to know America. So he had a small camper built on a pickup truck, got his standard sized Poodle, Charley and set off to rediscover his country. Or as he put it:
One of my purposes was to listen, to hear speech, accent, speech rhythms, overtones and emphasis. For speech is so much more than words and sentences. I did listen everywhere. It seemed to me that regional speech is in the process of disappearing, not gone but going. Forty years of radio and twenty years of television must have this impact. Communications must destroy localness, by a slow, inevitable process. ...with local accent will disappear local tempo. The idioms, the figures of speech that make language rich and full of poetry of place and time must go. And in their place will be a national speech, wrapped and packaged, standard and tasteless.
Reading Travels with Charley is like looking at a backwards mirror. I do find it to be a modern day prophecy. When I read Travels with Charley I have to do it in small doses, a page or two, sometimes just a paragraph. Reading the book almost fifty years removed from the actual writing has the feelin of literary archeology.
I have a strange affinity for Steinbeck. I'm not sure why, maybe it has something to do with the fact that he and I share a birthday, granted his was 72 years before mind and he was dead a full seven years before I made my squalling appearance, but for some reason Steinbeck's words resonate and rattle my brain cage when I read them. Full discloure: I tried, but have never gotten through East of Eden, if there is a heavier handed book I have yet to meet it.
There are passages in Travels with Charley that stick with me, particularly those rare occasions when I am traveling. I usually get whacked in the head from Steinbeck when I am in a motel. I make it a point to leave nothing behind because of something he writes about when he stops in Chicago.
There is an audio recording of the book, but it is only on audio tape; trust me, I have looked for it on cd. The book is read by Gary Sinese. Sinese's gravelly voice really captures the prose and the rythym of the book.
So, I shall go back to 1960 and drive with John and his dog Charley and rediscover America. I wonder what I'll learn this time.