This is the first book in my “Anitober” reading challenge, in which I finally read books recommended to me by my old college roommate, Anita. Travels with Charley was the first book I remember Anita recommending to me, sometime back in college sometime. I remember she had me read this one section about hunters in New England and how crazy they can get. My dad is a hunting type and I used to always make fun of him for it in college (that was before I discovered how delicious game meat can be, and decided that maybe it’s better to eat animals who aren’t raised to be food, because maybe, just maybe, they have better lives than feed lot creatures. And now I will cease discussing a controversial topic). At some point I purchased it at Green Apple, probably with Bethany. My copy cost seventy-five cents when it was first printed, but cost me $3.75. It’s always bothered me when used bookstores charge more for a book than is printed on the cover. Shouldn’t it cost what is says it should cost, or less if it’s used?
I wanted to write this review and post it yesterday since I finished Travels with Charley on Monday night, but unfortunately, my actual life got in the way of my blogging life. On Tuesday night, my thirteen year old dog, Spinner, swallowed a fuzzy cat ball whole. It was too big to pass and too big for him to vomit back up, so yesterday he had surgery to remove that stupid ball from his stomach. So yesterday was not a good day for blogging around here. He is doing fine today, though, and is at home safe and sound. Perhaps Spinner thought it would be best for me to have a recent anecdote about my own old dog before I started writing about John Steinbeck and his?
The premise of Travels with Charley is that John Steinbeck, famous author and soon-to-be Nobel Laureate, decides he needs to take stock of his country. He buys a large truck, has it fitted with a custom camper, names it Rocinante, and heads out with his ten-year-old standard poodle named Charley. He makes a loop from Sag Harbor, New York, through New England, the Midwest, down the Pacific Coast, back through the south, and up to New York again. This journey took place in 1960 from September to December. There has been some recent controversy about how true some of the anecdotes in the book are (see this article), but after reading the book I don’t necessarily care a whole lot about the veracity of some of the stories; the sentiment behind the stories in the book is the important part.
Let me take a moment to discuss my relationship with John Steinbeck. I read Of Mice and Men in high school, as a freshman. The best thing I had to say about it at the time was that it was short. I didn’t enjoy it much at all. And that was the last time I read anything by him. I managed to avoid The Grapes of Wrath somehow—my sophomore English teacher put something else in our curriculum, and at the time if was fine with me, because my friends who did read it had many negative things to say about it. I’m not sure if Bethany enjoyed it the first time around or not, but if she did, she was the only one of us. Now, of course, I wish I had been forced to read more Steinbeck because I feel like I’ve missed out. I mean, he did win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. His work can’t be as bad as a bunch of teenagers made it out to be. At some point, someone told me East of Eden is actually quite good. Probably it was Bethany or Anita. So I bought it. And then I decided a few years ago that probably I should own The Grapes of Wrath as well. And when I was in Monterey on my honeymoon in 2009 I bought Cannery Row at the aquarium, forgetting that my copy of Of Mice and Men also contained Cannery Row. Oh, well. And of course, I bought Travels with Charley at some point in the late ‘90s. And that’s the extent of my relationship with one of America’s most celebrated and honored novelists. Fortunately for me, that’s beginning to change.
So where was I? Oh, yes, Travels with Charley. The first passage I marked as memorable was this one, describing autumn in New England: “The climate changed quickly to cold and the trees burst into color, the reds and the yellows you can’t believe. It isn’t only color, but a glowing, as though the leaves gobbled the light of the autumn sun and then released it slowly. There’s a quality of fire in these colors (p. 27).” I wanted to get on a plane and go to New England after reading these sentences. I’ve never seen the fall leaves there, or anyplace that really has seasons, but I have always wanted to. This is just one example of the wonderful descriptions of our country that are peppered throughout this book. Steinbeck writes beautifully—this is something I didn’t remember from Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck is also a funny fellow. The best example I came across that illustrates his humor is the aforementioned story about the hunters. “I know there are any number of good and efficient hunters who know what they are doing; but many more are overweight gentlemen, primed with whisky and armed with high-powered rifles. They shoot at anything that moves or looks as though it might, and their success in killing one another may well prevent a population explosion. If the casualties were limited to their own kind there would be no problem, but the slaughter of cows, pigs, farmers, dogs, and highway signs makes autumn a dangerous season in which to travel. A farmer in upper New York State painted the word cow in big black letters on both sides of his white bossy, but the hunters shot it anyway (p. 57).”
There’s moments when Steinbeck definitely comes across like he was in a dark place while he was writing this book. From what I’ve read about the book from outside sources, he was not in good health at the time of his trip—heart disease—and made the journey when he did because he was worried he might not be alive for much longer. There are some chapters in which he sounds downright depressed and longing for a time long gone by. “These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders. No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a thing (pp. 89-90).” I found myself wondering what he would think about our country now; everything he was worried was going to happen seems to have come to pass. Homogeneity. The loss of regional accents. All that stuff. It’s unfortunate. But then I think about how connected everything is now and how easy it is to keep in touch with people so far away, and I am glad for interstates and the internet and all that comes with it. If sacrificing individuality is the price we have to pay for all we’ve gained, I guess I’m okay with that, though we should all acknowledge what was lost—because it was pretty good too.
And what kind of book blogging veterinarian would I be if I didn’t at least touch on Charley? Charley is a ten-year-old blue standard French poodle. From France. It appears that Steinbeck finds him quite intelligent. And also quite old. Now in this day and age a ten year old dog is old, but certainly not ancient. So it surprised me how often Charley was discussed as an ancient dog. I will say one thing about this book that I know to be true: there was a dog named Charley, and John Steinbeck knew him very well and loved him very much. I don’t care if he never met a Shakespearean actor on the side of a road in North Dakota; he definitely owned a dog. “Before a plan is half formed in my mind, Charley knows about it, and he also knows whether he is to be included in it. There is no question about this. I know too well his look of despair and disapproval when I have just thought that he must be left at home (p. 138).” What dog owner hasn’t seen that face? On two separate occasions Charley takes ill with what Steinbeck assumes is prostatitis; one veterinarian tells him it’s just a “cold,” and the other actually makes Charley feel better. I shudder to think that a veterinarian would actually provide the explanation to an owner that his dog couldn’t urinate because he has a “cold.” Apparently it was much easier to be a veterinarian in 1960 than in 2012.
There was so much more in this book I wanted to touch on: Steinbeck’s trip home to Monterey. The horrible integration protests in New Orleans. Texas. But if I kept going on this post no one would finish reading it. Thank you, Anita, for recommending this book to me. I wish I had read it sooner, but at the same time I’m also glad I waited, because I’ll never get to read it for the first time again, and it was worth waiting for.