Book Nine

So today I began reading The Long Valley, Steinbeck’s second collection of twelve short stories.

After I finish this book, the plan is to take a proper intermission—during which I will read another writer while catching up on this journal—before diving into an in-depth study of The Grapes of Wrath.

(Penguin Books/Cover illustration: Mick Wiggins)

Tortilla Flat

Danny put his head down and hurried for the shelter of the woods. Ahead of him he made out another hurrying figure; and as he narrowed the distance, he recognized the scuttling walk of his old friend Pilon. Danny was a generous man, but he recalled that he had sold all his food except the two slices of ham and the bag of stale bread.

“I will pass Pilon by,” he decided. “He walks like a man who is full of roast turkey and things like that.”

—Tortilla Flat

Not the wisdom of East of Eden, nor the tragedy of The Grapes of Wrath, nor the violence of In Dubious Battle, could ever betray to the reader of Steinbeck the hilarity to come when opening for the first time his fourth book, Tortilla Flat.

One problem I often encounter with comic novels is that the humor inherent in an author’s tone—it always seems to come down to tone in a novel-length piece of humorous writing—wears out its welcome long before the book wraps up. What is hilarious on page 3 is only amusing by page 30; by page 300, I have often grown bored. Even in so slight a work as Jack Handey’s The Stench of Honolulu, consistency of tone at some point winds up feeling, well, one-note. We get the joke, it’s repeated ad nauseum, and there’s nothing more to it. It’s too light. The novel has to be about something.

And then, on the other hand—on the dark side—there are those comic novels like Joshua Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End, which is brilliant in maintaining its balance between hilarious and heartbreaking—until it seems the author fears not being taken seriously enough and, late in the book, throws the whole thing away when he inserts yet another cancer subplot. So I close the book right then and think, Can’t a funny book just be funny?

My personal comic-novel sweet-spot is evidently very narrow. I guess I’m a tough audience.

I’ve read Catch-22 and A Confederacy of Dunces, but my favorite comic novel is Tortilla Flat. And what’s so great about Tortilla Flat in my book is—get this—its tone is perfectly consistent. How does Steinbeck manage to make me laugh throughout the entirety of this beautiful little novel? I have no idea. Certainly not by constantly pulling new tricks out of his bag: Tortilla Flat is like one long joke that, with each successive chapter, goes back and travels the same humorous road, each time going just a little further.

But it’s not just a funny book. Aside from its humor, I think Tortilla Flat is a perfect piece of writing. It never once waivers; its rhythm is so regular as to be intoxicating. The story has the simple, timeless feel of myth. In fact, my initial impression of the book was that Steinbeck must have taken it upon himself to finally commit to paper a Monterey legend passed down by oral tradition through generations. That Tortilla Flat and its characters sprang largely from Steinbeck’s imagination just blows me away. (Steinbeck did base the book to some extent on Malory’s Morte d’Arthur.)

Finally, Tortilla Flat is an incredibly strong example of what Steinbeck does best: breathtaking descriptive passages gild deeply engaging stories of characters so real and sweet and funny and tragic that they remain in our memories as people we have actually encountered, understood and known.

I have such affection for this little novel!

To a God Unknown

In the opening pages of John Steinbeck’s mystical, murky second novel, To a God Unknown, Joseph Wayne stands before his elderly father and expresses a desire to go west, to establish a new family homestead in California. His father, sensing he will soon die, asks Joseph to wait a year or two, until the event of his death, so that he can accompany his son as a spirit. Joseph, too restless to wait, goes ahead months later; upon arriving in the empty valley where he will stake his claim and spend the rest of his life, his gaze falls upon a large oak tree. This tree is to become Joseph’s anchor in the world.

To a God Unknown is the character study of a man who forgoes his humanity—that is, his natural emotional responses—and plunges into a deep, almost fetishistic relationship with the land. The reader may come away from the novel with a permanent vision of Joseph Wayne on his knees, his face pressed to the earth, kissing the dirt like a man who has just barely survived a disaster at sea or in the air.

When word arrives that his father has indeed died, Joseph comes to believe that his father’s spirit inhabits the oak tree, under which he has built his new home. Joseph knows simply by looking at the tree that his father is there—and in that moment he is startled to discover his belief, complete and total and unwavering, embedded within him on a level deeper than he can understand.

And it is on these deeper, subconscious levels that the book seems to live and breathe and belong; it is a novel of ambiguities and intuitions, full of a vague sense of things taking place far below the surface. Reading To a God Unknown is a bit like trying to fish with one’s hands in a muddy river: one sees little, sure only that something is swimming by one moment and is gone the next.

The novel, like its protagonist, is obsessed with nature. The bulk of the book is made up of long descriptive passages of land and sky. The beauty of these passages is soon eclipsed by the sheer number of them, and this is absolutely done on purpose: soon we feel, as Joseph Wayne does, nature weighing on us. We become overwhelmed by its heaviness as the book goes on.

Joseph Wayne is an almost entirely internal character: within his mind, the poetry of the earth flows freely; but outwardly, to other people, he is almost wholly inarticulate. One of the many mysteries of this novel is the way words often fail Joseph Wayne—whose story we are being told, oddly enough, in words.

The process of writing To a God Unknown was for John Steinbeck an especially grueling one. The novel originated as a three-act play called The Green Lady, written by a Stanford University classmate of Steinbeck’s. Soon the play was pulled apart in the process of adaptation by Steinbeck, who used only certain elements as raw material in the beginning. Over a period of years, Steinbeck would wrestle with the novel in fits and starts, often with major overhauls producing new revisions, which would then be folded under and dissolved into fresh rewrites. At one point Steinbeck set the project aside to write The Pastures of Heaven. One almost grows frustrated just reading about the trying times Steinbeck had molding this story, even to the point of wondering why Steinbeck never abandoned the project. Like Joseph Wayne remaining on his land long after the rain and his family have gone, Steinbeck seems to have traveled to a place far beyond simple steadfastness in completing To a God Unknown.

Puzzled upon turning the last page, I continue to have a great many wonders about To a God Unknown. The questions the book asks us and my own questions of the book soon become intertwined: Is man not just another part of nature? What sets man apart? What is the dark, cool place in the pines where the stream flows from the large moss-covered rock? Why does it promise peace to some while threatening others? Are the book’s muddled messages and Steinbeck’s struggles in composing the book linked? Is the book’s ambiguous nature deliberate, a virtue?

To a God Unknown is a deceptively slim novel heavy in its execution, in its descriptions, in its ideas, in its mysteries.

The Pastures of Heaven: Reflections

Writing to a friend shortly after sending The Pastures of Heaven to his agent, John Steinbeck offered a window into his thoughts on the newly-finished book:

If the reader will take them for what they are, and will not be governed by what a short story should be (for they are not short stories at all, but tiny novels) then they should be charming, but if they are judged by the formal short story, they are lost before they ever start. I am extremely anxious to hear the judgment because of anything I have ever tried, I am fondest of these and more closely tied to them. There is no grand writing nor any grand theme, but I love the stories very much.

Before penning the tiny, interconnected novels that would become The Pastures of Heaven, the young Steinbeck had struggled: his quest to become a writer in New York City had failed; his debut novel, Cup of Gold, was neglected by his publisher’s marketing department and subsequently by readers; and the long, hard slog of writing To a God Unknown was taking a toll.

And although the publication of The Pastures of Heaven would not mark Steinbeck’s breakthrough as a popular writer, the book heralded the great things that were on the horizon.

In his short story cycle The Pastures of Heaven, John Steinbeck plays the role of a journalist of sorts. But whereas journalists nearly always strive to document and recreate external events, Steinbeck—somehow, miraculously—covers the inner workings and the private happenings of minds and motives, hearts and hurts. He draws out and dissects the silences that abound in relationships healthy and toxic, and he does so with deadly accuracy.

The Pastures of Heaven marks the first time Steinbeck worked with material that was squarely in his wheelhouse as a writer. Setting aside the prodigious struggle of writing his novel To a God Unknown, which would take him nearly five years to finish, Steinbeck lighted upon a sweet spot with The Pastures of Heaven that he would turn to time and again throughout his writing life: telling the stories of the people sharing a small valley community set Steinbeck the writer on fire. Hanging his fiction upon this backdrop freed him up to write what is undoubtedly some of his finest work.

The fluctuations of mood, of possibility, even of quality of life, with the entrance or exit of a certain person or persons from a given space, is a common phenomenon, and a universal experience. The air of the day itself seems to change when that paramour knocks on the door, or when that co-worker with the negative attitude calls in sick. Driving around the summer countryside late at night listening to the radio amounts to nothing without my cousin and best friend there to spin such aimless excursions into the good, golden memories I will later turn to when times turn brutal and scary. I know—I’ve tried. I have felt the absence. As have you.

In The Pastures of Heaven, John Steinbeck introduces the Munroe family to his valley setting, Las Pasturas del Cielo, and, sometimes quietly, sometimes boomingly, but always devastatingly, tragedy follows the Munroes’ interactions with their neighbors. The Munroes were actually based on a real family, the Morans. As Steinbeck wrote to his agent:

The valley was for years known as the happy valley because of the unique harmony which existed among its twenty families. About ten years ago a new family moved in on one of the ranches. They were ordinary people, ill-educated but honest and as kindly as any. In fact, in their whole history I cannot find that they have committed a really malicious act nor an act which was not dictated by honorable expediency or out-and-out altruism. But about the Morans there was a flavor of evil. Everyone they came in contact with was injured. Every place they went dissension sprang up. There have been two murders, a suicide, many quarrels and a great deal of unhappiness in the Pastures of Heaven, and all of these things can be traced directly to the influence of the Morans. So much is true.

Steinbeck juggles and tracks and nails down the psychological complexities of everyday exchanges all over the valley in his collection of ten stories, which are bookended by a pair of vignettes. Like an omniscient journalist covering the heartbreaks that happen behind closed doors, Steinbeck is there to tell us the truth about the simple handshake that will lead to a huge disaster, the missed glance and the years of needless yearning that follow in its wake. Denial plays a huge role in the lives of the valley people. Fear plays the biggest part of all. It’s every man for himself, wrestling only with himself. And Steinbeck is there in the sky looking down, all the way down into men’s hearts, and recording everything, the sun his flashbulb, his razor-sharp pen pegging the flaws of his characters and of course all of us. This is what makes us human, these stories say. Isn’t it terrible? Isn’t it wonderful?

The Pastures of Heaven is an uncomfortable, sometimes shocking read. And it’s exhilarating, too, as the pages explode before our eyes with the marriage of a magnificent writer and his strongest subject on the occasion of their consummation. We turn the pages and nod our heads and say, “Yes, that’s the way it is. That’s exactly the way it is. He’s right. I know, because I’ve made these mistakes myself. I have been fearful. I have hurt others at times, even when trying to do good.”

But instead of alienating us, instead of making us feel we’d all be better off if we just let each other alone and stayed home and lived in fear of adding to the clutter and confusion of each other’s lives, The Pastures of Heaven has something else to show us in the end. The sum of all that has come before presents itself in the book’s final piece: When the tourists climb off the bus and stretch their legs and gaze down from the mountain into the beautiful valley and judge that this place, so marvelous to the eye, would be better, would be different, would be like living in heaven on earth, we the readers know better. That valley is populated by men, our equals. We have been given long looks under rugs and behind closed doors, and we have recognized our homes, our families. It’s so easy to forget, but Steinbeck has given us a hard, sharp reminder. For now, we know. Now we see.

Book Five

I tore through Tortilla Flat in 24 hours. What a wonderful book. I burst out laughing a few times, chuckled regularly, and smiled throughout my second reading.

Much more to come on Tortilla Flat, as well as To a God Unknown and The Pastures of Heaven.

Now it’s on to my first reading of Steinbeck’s fifth book, In Dubious Battle.

(Penguin Books/Cover illustration: Mick Wiggins)