October 07, 2011

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

I loved the first half of this book, the second half I did not like much at all. I've always been a fan of Steinbeck but never before had read any of his non-fiction works. I'm glad I did read this book, even if I was unsatisfied with the ending.

In his later years, Steinbeck, along with his older poodle Charley, decides to take a trip around the country to see how it has changed in the past twenty or so years (he spent a lot of time abroad). He buys a truck and a customer trailer he names "Rocinante" and stocks it full of supplies. Most notably enough liquor to fill a bath tub because he feels when you meet someone on the road, you can always use a good drink. He spends the first part of his trip in New England, seeing the sites there and tasting the local cuisine, and then moves on through the mid-west all the way to Seattle. He expresses an especial love for Montana and its "old-time" feel.

Once he reaches California, his original home, he makes a detour to see family and then resumes his travels towards Texas. For some reason, Steinbeck is a bit apprehensive about Texas and almost wants to skip it, but finds that he can't (especially since his wife's family lives there). He spends a couple days on a ranch and then moves on through the rest of the South. His trip isn't as pleasant through this part as the south during the sixties was full of turmoil due to the rights movement. He also learns the dangers of picking up Hitchhiker's who don't agree with your viewpoints.

Steinbeck meets several interesting people along the way. The best part about them is that they are all different, but the same in that they're just trying to make a better way for themselves. They share a drink and some interesting stories with him and help him from becoming too lonely on his journeys. However, some of the conversations seem a bit pretentious and I really do wonder if they were real conversations. Maybe its just being a product of my time but I don't think I've ever heard people talk as poetically as Steinbeck describes their conversations. His description of his dog is also wonderful. Just the conversations they had going back and forth, with sometimes the dog only saying "Fft" was funny reading to me.

Steinbeck's writing is of course marvelous. He does a really wonderful job with the description in the first part of the book and you can truly tell what an enjoyable time he's having. He describes Charley humorously and it really is a trip for him and his dog in these descriptions. However, he loses this description and somewhat ignores Charley in the latter half of the book. He also spends less time on places and it almost seems rushed. I would have liked to see him spend the same amount of time detailing California, Texas and the South as he did New England.

Overall though, this was an enjoyable read. It was the type of book you could pick up and read in pieces without having to worry about forgetting detail. It was simply a man's journey with his dog in search of what makes America the way it is and how the people who live in it shape the whole experience.

Travels With Charley
Copyright 1962
277 pages

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