At 58, John Steinbeck drove across America for a little over three months in a camper pickup with his elderly French poodle, Charley. The dog was not only a companion, but serves as a useful focal point around which Steinbeck structures his narrative. It’s 1960 and his trip begins just before JFK’s election. Steinbeck -a man born at the kickoff of the 20th century- is trying to get an idea of the nature of mainstream America as it enters the 60s and he’s trying his best to avoid getting soft. Being a renowned and financially successful novelist has its perks; Steinbeck’s vehicle is made-to-order for this trip specifically, offering all the accommodations one might desire, he is free to stop at hotels whenever he wants a hot shower or a different bed to sleep in.
Steinbeck’s narrative prose is refreshing and direct. He’s clearly intelligent and insightful but chooses to put down his observations in the most linear and direct form available. As much as I enjoy his fiction, I wish he had written more work like this. He communicates the essence of the people he meets in mere paragraphs, never resorting to caricature or stereotypes. Yes, rich Texans buy ranches with their oil money to play cowboy, but those jeans are worn pale blue from the leather of a saddle, not a heated Lexus seat.
This was written two years before Steinbeck flew to Sweden to accept his Nobel prize. He is -to use a phrase rendered rather trite by overly-enthused marketing copy- at the height of his literary power. He’s still hungry, challenging himself with a new kind of project, but with enough experience to know when to try a different approach. It’s a fantastic book, my favorite piece of nonfiction this year (so far).
Recommendation: Buy, read, write in margins. Read again later.