Book Review: Travels with Charley - John Steinbeck

It’s the end of 2020, and when you’ve been stuck at home for a year, with only your dog as your constant companion, Travels with Charley is a good book to read.

But this book is a lot more about Steinbeck’s road trip than about the dog.

Steinbeck romanticises everything. If so much as a tree sheds a leaf in front of him, he bursts forth with pages of ideas, thoughts and memories. Scholars have mentioned that Travels with Charley is clearly not non-fiction. And Steinbeck himself doesn’t pretend that it is non-fiction. They say he knew he was dying, and was hit with an irresistible wanderlust. With almost everything he encounters - places, people and politics alike - he stresses that these were memories that were uniquely his. And he admits that any of his opinions could be cancelled out by a single counterpoint - and of those, as many could be found as there are travellers. He never took any notes. He let mulled his memories of the road trip over well before he wrote the book.

So what does this book - which is supposedly in search of America - offer me: someone who’s never been to America? The answer, I think, lies in the cliche that people are the same everywhere. Anyone who writes about people will have a perennial audience. Anyone who reads well written character sketches - not characters, mind you - will relate to this.

There are numerous anchors in the book that bring Steinbeck’s meanderings back to cruel reality - from Hurricane Donna before he began his trip, to his sickening experience as he watched The Cheerleaders yell obscenities at little black girls at the height of the school desegregation crisis in New Orleans - after which he didn’t write much. But that’s all they are - anchors. Their purpose is more to remind the reader that Steinbeck isn’t exactly lost in a dreamland America. As I read, I was able to find my own anchors. We all have these anchors between which we can interpolate our own places, people and politics. We’ve all gotten lost because of idiots who give bad directions. We’ve all quarrelled over politics with our families. We’ve all hated racists and bigots. And we have all felt an overwhelming gratefulness for the inexplicable kindness shown by complete strangers.

I was so full of humble gratefulness… I hope that evil-looking service-station man may live a thousand years and people the earth with his offspring.

Ultimately, as any good writer shows - a good book is like a mirror. Of a reader, Steinbeck wrote in Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters

Well, by God, Pat, he’s just like me, no stranger at all. He’ll take from my book what he can bring to it. The dull witted will get dullness and the brilliant may find things in my book I didn’t know were there.

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