Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck's America
Walker and Company
Bill Barich, the author of eight books and a former Guggenheim Fellow, made a road trip across the United States in the election year of 2008, as John Steinbeck did in the election year of 1960. Steinbeck’s result was the national bestseller Travels with Charley: In Search of America; Barich in turn has written Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America.
Though Barich, like Steinbeck, started in New York and went to San Francisco, he drove across the country’s middle on Highway 50, passing through Clarksburg, West Virginia; Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis; St. Louis; Dodge City, Kansas; Moab, Utah; and Las Vegas. Steinbeck drove an enormous circle avoiding the center line of America, going north through Montana, down the Pacific coast, and back to the east coast via Texas and Louisiana. Barich stayed in motels, whereas Steinbeck traveled self-sufficiently in a pickup truck with a camper cap. Barich had no dog to cheer himself or the reader. But these are not essential differences.
One wants Barich to succeed, as he courageously takes on a formidable assignment. It is a task requiring more than a little chutzpah: write prose at a level appropriate to Steinbeck, and give the reader observations on America of a sharpness and depth reminiscent of the author of The Grapes of Wrath. The Nobel prizewinner did not write a dull page in Travels.
Bill Barich has a rather antagonistic relation to Steinbeck, as he indicates in his first pages. He read Travels as a youth, and recently looked at it again. “. . . The book let me down:”
At the core of Travels is a bleak vision of America’s decline that he [Steinbeck] chose to conceal by telling jokes and anecdotes.
[Steinbeck told his editor that]. . . the United States suffered from ‘a sickness, a kind of wasting disease’. . . and Americans, overly invested in material toys and saddled with debt, were bored, anguished, discontented, and no longer capable of the heroism that had rescued them from the terrifying poverty of the Depression.
Barich quotes Steinbeck also saying that America was “building energies like gasses in a corpse . . . When that explodes, I tremble to think what will be the result.” One reads this today wondering whether Steinbeck’s words might be more pertinent now than ever before, and expecting Barich to supply an answer.
Barich writes, “I could put his prophecy to the test. If the nation hovered on the edge of ruin, I’d record it faithfully, but I hoped to prove him wrong.” It is a pledge as ambitious as it is honorable—“to record it faithfully”—but after reading Long Way Home one feels that Barich’s travels and contacts were too random and superficial to confirm or refute such a prophecy. Instead, the wish “to prove him wrong” seems to be the operative factor. Indeed, after making a few stops west of Washington, D.C., (Barich drives through, but has nothing to say about the nation’s capital), where he reports “a sense of loss” and “vague anxiety.”
A kind of sadness came over me, a dreariness . . .
He sees a stifling rural poverty in West Virginia, southern Ohio, and southern Indiana: “The poverty isn’t only economic . . . It’s intellectual and cultural.” Barich reports a brief conversation with an Indiana farmer at a gambling casino in French Lick.
“Do you come here often?”
“Once or twice a month.” He fed the machine some coins. “It helps to pass the time.”
But it seems that a bowl of chili changes the traveler’s mood and evidently reverses the bleakness he has witnessed. “America was on the comeback trail.” A few pages later, the author reports some high-schoolers talking about candidate Obama:
“He’ll bring change,” Josh insisted. “We need a new leader.”
“You don’t mind that he’s part African American?”
Barich concludes, “The world truly does go quietly about the business of renewing itself while we’re looking the other way.”
On such slight threads hangs the author’s refutation of Steinbeck, despite the evidence he himself has haphazardly gathered. He does not allow for the affective fallacy of travelers, their own moods coloring the evidence they see, a problem Barich himself remarks upon—“It’s difficult at times for a traveler to separate his emotions from what he perceives”—but he gives the crucial problem no further consideration.
The preceding bits of dialogue bring to mind Barich’s judgment that in Travels with Charley, Steinbeck’s “characters. . . seemed cut from cardboard, and their dialogue sounded wooden.” Aside from the worn metaphors in Barich’s statement, one is struck by the harshness of the claim. Here is a bit of Steinbeck dialogue:
. . . Charley roared his warning and I opened the door and sprayed the road with light. It was a man in boots and a yellow oilskin. The light pinned him still.
“What do you want?” I called.
He must have been startled. It took him a moment to answer. “I want to go home. I live up the road.”
And now I felt the whole silly thing. . . . “Would you like a cup of coffee, or a drink?”
“No, it’s late. If you’ll take that light out of my face I’ll get along.”
I snapped off the light and he disappeared but his voice in passing said, “Come to think of it, what are you doing here?”
Here’s a piece that Steinbeck says is imaginary but typical:
Local man: “New York, huh?
Local man: “I was there in nineteen thirty-eight—or was it thirty-nine? Alice, was it thirty-eight or thirty-nine we went to New York?”
Alice: “It was thirty-six. I remember because it was the year Alfred died.”
Local Man: “Anyway, I hated it. Wouldn’t live there if you paid me.”
Now here is another passage from Long Way Home:
“Is the trail as dangerous as they say?” I asked. I’d read some devastating accounts of accidents.
“You can make of it what you will,” Mike felt. He meant your chances of a fall are directly related to the amount of care you exercise. An avid outdoorsman, he started as a rock climber and has no use for physical activities that don’t entail a challenge. Hiking bores him silly, for instance. He and Wendy came late to mountain biking, taking it up as a family sport with their kids.
“The girls wanted no part of it to begin with.” Wendy brushed a lock of hair from her forehead. “But the boys loved it.”
“They’re eager to go faster and harder,” Mike said approvingly. “The more rugged the terrain, the better they like it.”
The reader may judge for him/herself which author’s characters are cardboard and which dialogue is wooden.
One feels that the author’s opinions on Steinbeck are more informed and passionate than his observations on America. When the latter do appear, they seem facile:
When I was a boy, most fathers on our block had served during World War II and took pride in their commitment. . . . The nature of their sacrifice was crystal clear, but those days are gone forever—gone since the Vietnam, if not earlier.
The just cause is frequently compromised now, and our recent wars have not often been fought on the high moral ground.
The author has not given the reader confidence that he is adequately positioned for such summations—correct or incorrect though they might be—and such passages therefore strike one as gratuitous rather than incisive. And one cannot help noticing the clichés—“crystal clear,” “gone forever,” “high moral ground”—that further mar the book. To announce that one is following John Steinbeck, and continuously remind the reader of this, should require a writer to be fully present in every line. Sometimes one is nonplussed by one of Barich’s sentences:
It winds through a dizzying array of land forms so various and striking that one’s consciousness of the earth’s incredible diversity expands.
By contrast, one thinks of Steinbeck’s, “The air had a sweet burn of frost.”
Long Way Home is a timely project, and the book is interesting—a series of American glimpses passing along we read—but sometimes one feels that we are being shown a food tour of the central states, and that the book is not justified by arresting descriptions and incisive perceptions. At one point the author witnesses a Sarah Palin rally, but little is concluded. By contrast, one feels that Steinbeck, who referred to someone he encountered at a travel stop as “that bull bitch of a woman,” would have nailed a description of Ms. Palin the way Nadia used to nail a dismount. This reviewer suggests that you read Travels with Charley, and then follow Steinbeck’s trail for yourself.
*Steinbeck quotations are from Travels with Charley (New York: Bantam, 1961).
Kent Gramm is the author of November: Lincoln’s Elegy at Gettysburg, Gettysburg: A Meditation on War and Values, Somebody’s Darling: Essays on the Civil War, the novel Clare, and is coauthor of Gettysburg: This Hallowed Ground.