In 1960, author John Steinbeck set off on a driving trip around the country accompanied only by his elderly poodle Charley, to see what would happen and what he could learn about America. Unfortunately, that turned out to be not much and not much.
I got some enjoyment out of Travels With Charley, but my experience with Steinbeck led me to expect to enjoy it more. I wouldn’t put Steinbeck at the top of my list of favorite authors, but I’d rank him fairly high. I’ve read nine of his novels and novellas, and mostly liked them. The Winter of Our Discontent and Of Mice and Men would probably make the top 25 or so of my favorite books I’ve read, with The Grapes of Wrath only a hair below that level.
I mostly like Steinbeck’s writing style, though at the same time I’m conscious of the way realism is often sacrificed for a pro-working class hagiography, with the noble Okies of The Grapes of Wrath being a prime example. At the same time, it’s a style of telling details and clever turns of phrase that are both amusing and insightful about human nature. Unrealistic, oversimplified, yet appealing and inspiring—the literary equivalent of a Frank Capra movie.
That style is in evidence in this book as well, with mixed results. There’s no shortage of interesting observations, but for me a lot of the book falls flat. The people he encounters that he chooses to describe mostly sound like characters from his novels, and somehow when it’s real people being made to sound like folksy caricatures it makes me a little more uneasy than when it’s fictional characters.
He’s humble about his ability to come up with the kind of insightful and interesting commentary he feels pressured by the nature of the project to produce, and at times it feels like he’s trying too hard. Some of his comments and generalizations about people and states and such have the superficial feel of “good writing,” until you stop and think about them and realize that substantively they’re not particularly persuasive.
But it’s hit or miss, definitely not all miss. And I think different readers will identify the hits and misses very differently.
One of his observations that stuck with me, for instance, is that there is a timelessness to introspection. That is, when you’re alone in a situation like a long stretch of driving that you can pretty much do automatically, and you let your mind wander, the past, the present and the future that it lights on are all equally present to it. Whereas when you’re engaged with people and being more external—or for that matter having to concentrate on something like the weather conditions or looking for your destination—your consciousness is compelled to remain in the present. (I suppose one could apply that point spatially as well as temporally.)
Nothing all that profound I suppose, but that got my attention for some reason.
Charley—and I’m sure this will set me apart from most readers—mostly didn’t come alive for me. Steinbeck’s journey feels like a solo one. Charley seems like a little more than an inanimate object, but way, way short of a human companion. Steinbeck makes a considerable effort to make it seem otherwise, but his attribution of human-style reactions to Charley and his description of their supposed communication, is more sweet, amusing and cutesy than believable.
Everyone thinks their pet is something more than an animal, and indeed it’s fun to act like a pet is a person, but I think it’s 90% make believe, just one step up from a little kid’s imaginary friend. (The only clear exception I can think of is my basset hound Zippy that I lived with for part of the ’80s and ’90s, who was in fact an intriguing and unique little person.)
For me the book is like being on a road trip that is very long and mostly uneventful, and that therefore has the potential to be utterly tedious, but you have as a companion a bright, articulate guy who tells stories and points out things of interest along the way, and that makes the experience not a fascinating adventure, but somewhere right smack in the middle between “utterly tedious” and “fascinating adventure.”
Another reason I should like this book a lot rather than just a little is that I myself have done several long road trips around the U.S., alone, where I’ve put up to or in one case just over 10,000 miles on my car. It’s been a big part of my adult life, a source of a lot of important experiences, a lot of important memories. (Though nowhere near what it potentially could be. Having grown up very shy, I have almost zero ability to interact comfortably with strangers on the road. So 90% of what I take from the trips involves my visits with important people in my life that I already knew, and 10% is scenery and attractions, whereas Steinbeck is a very social person and routinely gets into significant conversations with total strangers in diners, over coffee and booze in his camper, etc.) So I should recognize him as a kindred spirit and get the itch to get back on the road and such. And I do feel some of that as I read and think about this book, just not as much as I’d have expected.
There’s no question what is the most gripping writing in Travels with Charley. That’s the section right near the end about his travels through the South, and especially his account of the carnival of loathing he witnesses in New Orleans when small children and their parents and armed escorts entering an integrated school are subjected to vicious, hateful and obscene jeering from adult—mostly female—whites. I can feel Steinbeck’s tears through the pages, because his reaction is so similar to how I feel when confronted with evidence of humanity’s capacity to sink that low.
I suspect I would have preferred to this book maybe just this section turned into a long magazine article, perhaps augmented by additional journalistic research and interviews. It’s the clear high point of the book.
Steinbeck is a likable guy, and I enjoy his writing style more than not. Therefore Travels With Charley is worthwhile to me, albeit not to the degree I might have hoped. But I’m sure almost all Steinbeck fans would enjoy this book, most probably would enjoy it even more than I did.