Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Rereading Travels With Charley In Search of America by John Steinbeck

When I was very young and the urge and the urge to be someplace else was upon me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When  years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.

Travels With Charley is the tale of a trip that John Steinbeck made around the country, accompanied by only his poodle Charley. The book is both funny and thoughtful at the same time. Steinbeck wanted to rediscover the real America that he had been writing about for so long, an America which he had lost touch with. "With Charley, his French poodle, Steinbeck drives the interstates and the country roads, dines with truckers, encounters bears at Yellowstone and old friends in San Francisco. And he reflects on the American character, racial hostility, on a particular form of American loneliness he finds almost everywhere, and on the unexpected kindness of strangers that is also a very real part of our national identity." 

I'm not overly fond of America, but I love this book. It's hilarious in parts, especially when Steinbeck describes Charley's antics. But at other moments, Steinbeck is dead-on right. For example on page 26, "...but I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness- chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in sea." That time that he refers to is now, and Steinbeck, writing in the 1950's and 60's, predicted it. Are humans so predictable? 

Much of the book is about interactions between Steinbeck and various people, and encounters with various animals. Steinbeck comments on Charley's waking-up habits, commenting that "Charley likes to get up early, and he likes me to get up early too. And why shouldn't he? Right after his breakfast he goes back to sleep. Over the years he has developed a number of innocent-appearing ways to wake me up. He can shake himself and his collar loud enough to wake the dead. If that doesn't work he gets a sneezing fit. But perhaps his most irritating method is to sit quietly beside the bed and stare into my face with a sweet and forgiving look on his face; I come out of deep sleep with the feeling of being looked at. But I have learned to keep my eyes tight shut. If I even blink, he sneezes and stretches, that night's sleep is over for me...he nearly always wins." Hilarious, right? There are way too many funny and interesting parts for me to include them all, but another fascinating instance is when they're driving through Yellowstone. Charley, normally a gentle dog, suddenly becomes a savage beast when confronted by bears, regardless of the fact that a bear could crush him with one paw. 

I really love John Steinbeck, and Travels With Charley is a humorous and thought-provoking work of nonfiction. I need to reread some of Steinbeck's novels (the only one I've reviewed on this blog is The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights). Rereading The Grapes of Wrath is probably next on my list. I would highly recommend this book too, and I'm glad I have my own copy now.

Read Travels With Charley:
  • if you like John Steinbeck
  • if you like traveling
  • if you like books with poodles or dogs in general
277 pages.
Outstanding Book That Will Stay On My Bookshelf For Rereading (jf I own it)!

1 comment:

  1. You've written a nice review, but if you check out my book "Dogging Steinbeck" on, you will learn that you've already read one of John Steinbeck's fictional works -- "Charley."