Book Review: Travels with Charley

It’s been a minute, friends! With so much time at home this past year, you’d think I would have read a lot, but the year didn’t allow much time to read. I don’t know what I’ve been doing, really, but I’ve been busy trying to be more present in the moment with everyone in quarantine. Also, I lacked the motivation to read. The only book that has renewed my interest in reading has been the Bible. Recently it’s been the end of the OT and the book of Romans (I’m trying to finish my Bible reading from last year). [I was supposed to read the OT and Psalms/NT simultaneously but it turned out as OT and Psalms for the most part. I’m finishing up the NT and then I’ll be done for another round!] I digress.

Steinbeck. There are travel books, and there are travel books written by Nobel Prize winning authors.

Travels with Charley was a good read. Travels with Charley is America, past and present. Steinbeck’s account of his travels across the country in the early 60s is still very much a reflection of society today. The fact that not much has changed other than its physical appearance is a scary and sobering thought. I learned from his version/vision of America. I caught a glimpse of the country through the lens of an older white, upper-middle class American male. Oftentimes it was funny because he seemed like a cranky old white man doing something he didn’t feel like doing, which was traveling around the country in full circle. Why would he leave the comforts of his home in New York and the embrace of his loving wife for an uncomfortable, long journey around a massive country, by himself, with his dog, in a pick-up truck? He thought it was ridiculous too. But it was going to be his last.

With the knowledge of his deteriorating health and the encouragement from his wife, Steinbeck packed his GMC pickup, specially made with a deluxe cabin, said goodbye to his wife, and hit the road with his faithful “old French gentleman poodle known as Charley.” I specifically say his dog was French because Steinbeck made it a point that his dog was from France. He states, “Actually his name is Charles le Chien. He was born in Bercy on the outskirts of Paris and trained in France, and while he knows a little poodle-English, he responds quickly only to commands in French. Otherwise he has to translate, and that slows him down. He is a very big poodle, of a color called bleu, and he is blue when he is clean.” The dog turns out to be more than just a companion and conversation starter with strangers; he serves the purpose of keeping Steinbeck grounded in each section of the book.

Though Steinbeck is an older-white-upper-middle-class-American-male, his America is not romanticized or idealized. Other than his ability to travel, freely, without being attacked or discriminated against because of his skin color (or gender), his insights and descriptions of the places he visits and the people he meets seem mostly raw and unfiltered. He acknowledges and understands the privilege of his status, and while he also seems to relish in it both socially and economically, he interacts with the poor, the rich, the uneducated, the privileged, and the under- and un-privileged; near the end, he finds himself feeling sick and running away from the clash of realities. He writes, “I had seen so little of the whole. I didn’t see a great deal of World War II…but I saw enough and felt enough to believe war was no stranger. So here–a little episode, a few people, but the breath of fear was everywhere. I wanted to get away–a cowardly attitude, perhaps, but more cowardly to deny… I tossed about until Charley grew angry with me… But Charley doesn’t have our problems. He doesn’t belong to a species clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live in peace with itself. He doesn’t even know about race, nor is he concerned with his sisters’ marriage…I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.” There’s a section in the book where he tries to generalize the American image, but he soon realizes its paradoxical nature. There was no generalization for people, especially for America. Steinbeck’s intention for the book started off as a way to revisit his past and to prove that no two journeys were alike. Along the way, it seemed he also wanted to find that American identity. He ends the book weary and filled with sorrow, glad to head back home, but he leaves us with the idea that “many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.” Travels with Charley was only a small part of Steinbeck’s life but his experiences and portrait of America continue through our present.

[photos from goodreads]

Some highlights/quotes:

“I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation–a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here.”

“I drove as slowly as custom and the impatient law permitted. That’s the only way to see anything.”

“Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible.” … “A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.”

“In Spanish there is a word for which I can’t find a counterword in English. It is the verb vacilar, a precent participle of vacilando. It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere but doesn’t greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction.”

“It is very strange that when you set a goal for yourself, it is hard not to hold toward it even if it is inconvenient and not even desirable.”

“My voice took on a strident tone of virtuous outrage which automatically arouses suspicion.”

“One goes, not so much to see but to tell afterward.”

“Charley is an elderly gentleman of the French persuasion.”

“I saw only two real-man fights, with bare fists and enthusiastic inaccuracy, and both of those were over women.”

“Sometimes the view of change is distorted by a change in oneself.”

“And there are true secrets in the desert. In the war of sun and dryness against living things, life has its secrets of survival.”

“I remember a man in Salinas who in his middle years traveled to Honolulu and back, and that journey continued for the rest of his life. We could watch him in his rocking chair on his front porch, his eyes squinted, half-closed, endlessly traveling to Honolulu.”

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