Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Unfinished business

A work in regress …
Monday marked John Steinbeck's 110th birthday, churning up bittersweet memories.

The unfinished illustration at left, which would have been for self-promotion, represents a wave of wistfulness that crested over the weekend when I read a backhanded celebration of Steinbeck's life and work.

Posting the unfinished work breaks an internal cardinal rule of my blog, but feeds another purpose, which is from time to time to open a vein and bleed a bit.

John Steinbeck remains my favorite writer, since a high school English teacher first made me read him. I'd love to say I've traveled the world of literature page by page, from the hooves of Chaucer's horse to Cormac McCarthy's road laid waste (just two disparate examples), and returned to Steinbeck even after such a considered journey.

The uneasy truth is I don't read much. Aside from Kurt Vonnegut or William Saroyan or J.R.R. Tolkien or Garrison Keillor, I have not pursued writers through their collections.

I read anymore for need, not want, corralling and consuming the small and weak snippets of information that have eluded me all these years. Even so, reading is a chore, a fight against a Pavlovian predilection to fall asleep. 

Still, what a time reading Steinbeck! Good readers often say words transport them, and so Steinbeck did for me. He took me to the nearby Salinas Valley north of my hometown, to a place that no longer exists if it ever did, a romantic and worn-smooth place. He took me to the steep and hot and unforgiving canyons above Big Sur, (a Steinbeck style affectation I stole, replacing commas with "and" between items in a series) to the quiet gurgling bends of the Salinas River, perfumed with sycamores, to a miserable sodden rail car, full of miserable people going nowhere.

He made me want to try a beer milkshake, as Doc did in Cannery Row, in Santa Maria, a half hour from my hometown; or taste the regular irregular concoction Eddie made when he poured unfinished drinks from La Ida Cafe into a jug and took it back to share with Mack and the boys at the boiler-strewn lot known as the Palace Flophouse.

Steinbeck informed my thinking, to which these editorial cartoons attest. It set up awkward moments when I twice met Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers union, and he regarded me as a member of the hostile press.

I felt like I was living — and truly living — in Steinbeck's books, which is probably any writer's desire. I'd fall short describing that tingle, that sense of the earth falling suddenly away, when a college friend and I drove up to Cannery Row early one morning and I saw for the first time many of the places Steinbeck described. Until that moment, I thought them purely made up.

On rare occasion a piece by Aaron Copland will pop up on the radio, and suddenly I'll be flying noiselessly over the golden foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, a source for many Steinbeck stories. It'd be small surprise that Copland is my favorite composer, so tied was he to Steinbeck's work and era. Though Copland wrote scores for movie versions of The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men, even his signature pieces — especially Appalachian Spring — take me straightaway to the settings of Steinbeck's stories.

I remember how reading Steinbeck describe the chapparal vibrating with insects on a hot afternoon, or hearing Copland's The Red Pony quickly sweep into the joyful gallop of a boy and horse, and I'd catch my breath, lost in reverie. It was magic that doesn't happen very often anymore, and I wonder why; my guess is age has rubbed off many of the edges.

At one time I was on fire to complete the portrait of Steinbeck above, itself inspired by a photographic portrait. I was building Steinbeck with symbols of him; his shoulders the furrows of the farmland that figured into so many of his stories; assorted splotches and lines suggested a map of his characters' journeys; the curve of nose and plane of shadow on his right check somehow to comprise the Route 66, the path of his Joad family from Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the poisoned bounty in California. Probably in the struggle of getting the sign to become the nose, I stopped, and never returned.

I post it now as a Post-It® note to self: Get moving on all the good stuff left unfinished. Succumb to the magic more often.

Whenever I read about Steinbeck anymore, someone is trying to punch him in his dead nose. He was a lightweight West Coaster, shoulda never won the Nobel, let alone a Pulitzer. That kinda stuff. Even a fan such as Joe Livernois, former executive editor of the Monterey Herald, used his Sunday essay of celebration to call two of my favorite Steinbeck books "stinkers" — singling out In Dubious Battle as maybe "the greatest disappointment to ever smudge a printed page."

Let critics talk, and jump on Steinbeck's bones. He will always remind me the good stuff is not entirely lost. 

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree. The couple of his books that I've read were wonderful.