Just finished reading John Steinbeck - Travels with Charley. What a brilliantly written book. It is the first factual diary that has had me gripped like a thriller. I started reading it to appreciate the style of writing, but within a few pages I had forgotten that duty and was just carried along with the story. It was a story of a journey, a reflective trip around the USA as Steinbeck was beginning to feel his age and mortality. Steinbeck took his dog, Charley, and a motor home based on a pick up truck. Typically of Steinbeck he focused on individuals and small things in order to paint a wider picture. It was written in 1960 and these were particularly interesting times in the USA. The stated aim of the trip was to reconnect to ordinary Americans and re-engage as a writer should, with his core subject material. The sub text was that he was quite rich and famous by then, although apparently could get by without being recognised and wanted to act as a common traveller and meet people on equal terms.
The book started lightheartedly and optimistically and Steinbeck soon found familiar themes in his meeting and drinking with labourers and his love of countryside and country folk. His problems with traffic in larger towns and cities was a source of amusing self deprecation. The story pivots around his return to the west coast. He started on the East coast. After visiting his old haunts he realises that he can never go back to the place and people as they were and he is concerned about the enormous growth of cities. From there the narrative turns darker. He describes Texas in light detail, concerned mainly about his dog (who had developed a painful medical problem) and his extended family whom he visits with his wife. She joins him several times on the trip. He then moves directly to New Orleans and the problems with racism. He visits the 'cheerleaders' as they hound and abuse students attending a mixed race school. He describes the situation beautifully. He is careful to avoid too much criticism of people but finally loses it with one racist hitch hiker. After this he decides the trip is over, although he still had a long way to drive, he stays to the main roads and tells us little about the scenery. His final problems with traffic in New York are described as real frustration and the impotence of the old.
Overall the book is a masterpiece of story telling. Steinbeck uses the dog as a source of humour, a device with which to maintain a conversation, and a kind of thermometer of his mood as the journey progresses. In the end the dog is cured of immediate illness, and happy, but subdued and feeling its age. Perhaps the same was true of the author. His style of writing is brilliant, he describes conversations with strangers as fully formed smaller stories. He uses the arc of the physical journey to describe his feelings about his country and the people. It is a vehicle for Steinbeck to explain how he feels growing old and one feels honoured to be able to read it.