Some time last year, after I finished re-reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (a five-star read for me which I reviewed right here), I decided it might be time to focus on this author’s work, re-read some favourites and discover many new-to-me titles. I mentioned this idea over on LibraryThing and quite a few people said they’d like to jump in too, and so the Steinbeckathon was born. A few buddies and I came up with a schedule for the year, thirteen novels in twelve months, highly feasible considering some of his works run no more than 100 pages. I’m a little bit late reporting this, since we started in January of course. Our first work was the short novel Cannery Row in January, which we’ve followed up this month with The Wayward Bus (links lead to the discussion threads). Here are my reviews for those first two novels:
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck ★★★★⅓
“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.” For roughly the first half of the novel, I was just trying to get my bearings and get a feel for the lay of the land. I knew ahead of time I shouldn’t look for a story; it’s more akin to a love poem to Monterey and the down-in-the-dumps Cannery Row, where whores, bums, shopkeepers and one marine biologist eke out a living. The living conditions Steinbeck describes here are difficult at best, but the emphasis is on observing details, as one would simply record facts, or like a camera taking snapshots—no bias. Perhaps the lack or a real plot contributes to making this world and it’s inhabitants seem so real—real life doesn’t follow storylines either, after all. A few characters stand out, especially Doc, the aforementioned marine biologist, who is universally loved by all the local residents, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much Steinbeck put of himself in this character who has wonderful discerning tastes in music and books, if not the people he counts among his friends. It’s a short novel that is almost impossible to describe, but must be experienced at least once. I’ll definitely read it again, if only to fully take in Steinbeck’s gorgeous prose.
The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck ★★★★⅓
“The windows of the restaurant were screened against flies, and the screen door banged shut after every entrance or exit. Alice Chicoy hated flies. In a world that was not easy for Alice to bear or to understand, flies were the final and malicious burden laid upon her. She hated them with a cruel hatred, and the death of a fly by swatter, or slowly smothered in the goo of fly paper, gave he a flushed pleasure. Just as Juan usually had a succession of young apprentices to help him in the garage, so Alice hired a succession of young girls to help her in the restaurant. The girls, gawky and romantic and homely—the pretty ones usually left with a customer within a few days—seemed to accomplish little in the way of work. They spread dirt about with damp cloths, they dreamed over movie magazines, they sighed into the juke box—and the most recent one had reddening eyes and a head cold and wrote long and passionate letters to Clark Gable. Alice Chicoy suspected every one of them of letting flies in. Norma, this most recent one, had felt the weight of Alice Chicoy’s tongue many times about flies.”
Set within the course of a single day, from pre-dawn until just after dusk, Steinbeck throws together a group of ten people and describes their battles, both with their inner demons and among each other for maximum dramatic effect. Alice and Juan Chicoy own a diner and garage at Rebel Corners, California where they feed travellers and shuttle them down a fifty-mile road on their old beat-up second-hand bus rechristened “Sweetheart”. After introducing us to the place and to it’s owners—Alice, who runs the restaurant; husband Juan, who operates the bus and is half-mexican and half Irish; their employees “Pimples” Carson, an oversexed crater-faced teenager and Norma, a plain girl who spends her free time writing letters to the object of her every thought, Clark Gable—the author throws us directly into a crisis. This is the morning after a failed attempt to ferry five passengers to San Juan de la Cruz. The bus having broken down, Juan was forced to drive back to Rebel Corners to fix the vehicle, and not knowing what to do with the passengers, the couple have put them up to sleep in their own quarters and spent the night sleeping on chairs themselves. Everyone is cranky before breakfast has even begun being served and we immediately get a feeling for the characters and some of the dynamics at play. There’s the Pritchard family of three, who are on their way to vacation in Mexico. Eliot Pritchard is an uptight businessman who calls his wife Bernice “little girl”. We’re given to understand they rarely, if ever have sex, because Bernice finds it distasteful. Their grown daughter Mildred still lives at home, but is at odds with her conservative parents and yearns to find her own place in life and gain as many experiences as she can while she’s young. Ernest Horton is on the face of it a traveling salesman for a novelties company, but he also wears a pin which signifies he’s been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for military valour. There’s also cranky old Mr. Van Brunt, who doesn’t like anything and is convinced everything will go wrong.
Into this already combustible mix, another traveller makes her appearance after being dropped off by a Greyhound bus from nearby San Ysidro. Known to us under the false name of Camille Oaks, this blonde bombshell passes herself off as a dental nurse, but actually makes her living as a stripper (she’s played by Jane Mansfield in what is considered to be a very bad movie adaptation). Before anyone has had time to finish breakfast, Alice has managed to cause a couple of major scenes, one of which prompts her waitress Norma to quit her job. A deeply neurotic and insecure woman who thinks her husband might leave her at any moment, Alice is immediately threatened by Camille Oaks’ presence and is convinced that Juan has designs on her. Yet the thing she looks forward to most is to see everybody off so she can get stinking drunk. By the time everyone’s gotten on the bus, has found their seats and settled in for the ride, we’re already more than halfway through this short novel; we don’t know if the passengers will make it to their destination, but we know they’re in for a memorable ride. Someone mentioned on the Steinbeckathon thread that this novel seems like a precursor to reality shows, which I think is a very good observation. All the characters are flawed and not easy to like, but they offer a fascination look into the human psyche. Much recommended.