Monday, December 29, 2008

Steinbeck Returns
Jules Older waxes lyrical in San Francisco.

I WAS INVITED to Monterey as a travel writer. Taste the food, savor the wine, meet the mountains and the sea.

I went to Monterey as a Steinbeck devotee. Smell and taste and wallow in the places he grew up, lived and wrote about. Find his inspiration. Honor the writer, the observer, the man.From age 13 or 14 on, John Steinbeck was the writer I most loved, the writer who most shaped my life, my values, and I hope, my own writing. He showed me that writing could have a conscience and still stir the blood. That it could describe a tide pool and a stinking fisheries town and still be poetry. That writing could take risks, chart unknown territory, lead the way to a better literature and a better world.

So, after I returned from Monterey, I returned to Steinbeck. Not to the big books, East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath; I’d re-read both in the past decade. This time I went small. Sweet Thursday, 1954. In Dubious Battle, 1936. His 1942 WW2 propaganda novel, The Moon Is Down. Sweetly charming Tortilla Flat, 1935. The 1957 French bonbon, The Short Reign of Pippin IV. And the book that made a man of me, Steinbeck’s slim 1945 novel, Cannery Row.

I remember when I first read it: Camp Aliquippa, coast of Maine, 14 years old. When my folks picked me up at summer’s end, while driving through Bath, Maine on the way south to Baltimore, I told them: “I think I'm growing up. I just read a book where nothing happens, and I liked it.” Cannery Row.

Every Steinbeck book I read still works, and some of them are still great. Sweet Thursday is perfectly named — it’s a delight. The Moon Is Down, denounced in its day for being soft on Nazis, is about the best call-to-arms a novel can be. Proof: It was secretly translated, printed and distributed from one end of Nazi-occupied Europe to the other. In Dubious Battle has action and history, but it’s too polemical and given to a speechifying I've never heard outside a book or old movie.

Ah, but Cannery Row — now, that’s a national treasure. Here's the poetry with which it opens:Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.

And later, in Chapter 10, with the possible exception of Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea, Steinbeck writes the best description of a tidal pool, ever. Science and poetry.But it’s not just poetry. Back at Aliquippa, I almost bumped my head on the bunk above me, so amazed was I by the audacity, the bravery, the flaunting of the unwritten rules of law and literature in this brief sentence:“Why don’t you go take a flying fuggud the moon,” he said kindly and he turned back to look at the girl. P. 84 Both Sweet Thursday and Cannery Row build, ever so slowly, to a climactic party at Doc’s Cannery Row laboratory. Here's how the big party chapter ends in Cannery Row:The party had all the best qualities of a riot and a night on the barricades… A woman five blocks away called the police to complain about the noise and couldn't get anyone. The cops reported their own car stolen and found it later on the beach. Doc sitting cross-legged on the table smiled and tapped his fingers gently on his knee. Mack and Phyllis Mae were doing Indian wrestling on the floor. And the cool bay wind blew in through the broken windows. It was then that someone lighted the twenty-five-foot string of firecrackers.
P 178 Dunno precisely why that swells me with inner tears, but it does, it does.—

PS This just in: “Netflix rentals of the Depression-era classic The Grapes of Wrath rose 10 percent from September to October this year.” - Business Week

PPS Steinbeck isn't the only GAW (great American writer) who’s making a comeback.
Hawaii-now-California-based travel writer Bob Bone spotted this in the Sacramento Bee:

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