Friday, February 26, 2016

Travels with Charley: In Search of AmericaTravels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"But the studied detail did not stop there. Boots were scuffed on the inside and salted with horse sweat, and the heels run over. The open collars of the men's shirts showed dark lines of sunburn on their throats, and one guest had gone to the trouble and expense of breaking his forefinger, which was splinted and covered with laced leather cut from a glove."

John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley (1962) has a special place in my memory. I had read this book, in English, about 45 years ago, while still in my native Poland. I had then been totally enthralled by the idea of traveling through the vast expanses of the United States and I remember following Mr. Steinbeck's path from the East Coast to the West Coast and back, with my fingers tracing the highways on a US Road Atlas that I had somehow miraculously managed to procure.

Mr. Steinbeck embarks on his 10,000-mile trip to refresh his memories of the country as he "had not felt the country for twenty-five years" and "had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light." He drives a specially prepared pickup truck, with a camper mounted on top, accompanied only by Charley, his French-born "blue" poodle. From Sag Harbor on Long Island he travels to New England, from there to Chicago, and then through north Midwest to Seattle, and down to Salinas, his birthplace near the Monterey Peninsula in California. Next, he drives back east, through Mojave desert, to Texas and the southern states, back to the New York state.

Travels was one of the most important reads of my youth. I remember how the book strengthened my boyhood fascination with the United States as a geographic place, with its multitude of states, marked with different colors in the atlas. I can still recall my amazement at the straight-line borders of many states, like Wyoming or Colorado, and the thrill of the exotic-sounding names. Of course, in the early 1970s I could only dream about the United States; my chances of getting out from behind the Iron Curtain and particularly of traveling in the US seemed certain to be zero. Now the country of my boyhood dreams became my own country and I traveled coast to coast - in a bus or a car - four times, and four times back.

Alas, the re-read has disappointed me. I have not been able to recognize the greatness of the book that I had so clearly perceived almost half a century ago. I have found only four fragments of real interest: Mr. Steinbeck's using the human traces in his unmade hotel room to imagine night activities of previous occupants of the room, the ugly racial episode in New Orleans, where the locals protest the enforced integration of children in an elementary school, the "orgy" in Texas (no, not of sexual type, but rather a spectacle of immensely rich and stupid people being ostentatious about their wealth), and the "back to Salinas" episode, where the author returns to the place of his birth, and realizes that trying to recapture the feeling of the past has been an error. "You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory," he writes. Any attempt to connect the "now" to the past is futile as the "permanent and changeless" past is irretrievable and does not exist in any real sense.

Like Mr. Steinbeck's distressing return to Salinas, my attempt to bring back the moments of fascination with Travels with Charley also proved a painful failure. And my real-life coast-to-coast trips have been no match whatsoever for the trips of my boyhood dreams.

Two and a half stars.

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