Monday, September 24, 2012

East of Somewhere

Last August, a friend recommended John Steinbeck's East of Eden, a book I've always been aware of but hadn't felt driven to read.  I suppose, like so many high schoolers who even today invariably encounter Of Mice and Men in the 9th or 10th grade, I felt like I'd already "done" Steinbeck.  In my case, it wasn't just a high school experience with George and Lennie but my summer work as a lifeguard a few years later.  With nothing much else do on breaks from the guard's chair, I plowed through books, including several of Steinbeck's.  I started with the shorter novels--Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, The Pearl--but the next summer, when I managed a pool at an adults-only apartment complex, and thus had no business for hours at a time during the weekdays, I threw myself into his great big dustbowl epic The Grapes of Wrath, a book that I felt deserved every bit of praise it ever got and then some.  I had expected the novel to encompass an unforgettable period of twentieth century American history, but what I didn't expect was how lively and even daring was its narration.  It's one of those books that is a classic for a reason.

But I never picked up East of Eden.  Probably I figured one epic per author was sufficient, and so I moved on to other books and authors that until then, given my crappy high school literary education, had eluded me: The Scarlet Letter, The Jungle, A Farewell to Arms,  Heart of Darkness,  Armies of the Night, Main Street, a few others.  It was a great summer of reading, except for A Farewell to Arms, which I remember thinking was emotionally puerile, sophomoric in its portrayal of the heroine and the romance.  (This is not a knock against Hemingway generally, and I should admit that I haven't gone back to the book to see if I'd feel any different about it now.)  Back then, my vague impression of East of Eden was of an ambitious but peculiar book, one that had received a very uneven reception when it appeared in 1952.  I don't know how I might have known that, but I think I did, and with too many other books I needed to catch up on, I passed Eden by.  It remained passed for me until this summer.  I'm happy to have made the correction.

East of Eden is indeed a peculiar book, almost impossible to categorize.  A historical novel?  A family memoir?  A biblical allegory?  A tourist guide to west-central California?  A cautionary tale against the zeolatry and violence that the author knew was to distinguish the middle part of the century (and did too the later, unforunately)?  Yes, it's all that.  And maybe the difficulty in categorizing it led reviewers to resist it at first.  The biblical imagery in it can be rather heavy-handed with the Cain and Abel story pressing down on the novel in many ways, both directly and indirectly (such as in the title itself).  Yes, the narrator can be clumsily editorial in passages; yes, there's just a hint of big novel melodrama in a few of the scenes and maybe a tendency toward preachiness that readers (and writers) tend to resist these days.  Yes, the language the characters use occasionally feels dated.  But as a fiction writer, and one who's dabbled a bit in historical narratives, I wonder at how seamlessly Steinbeck wraps all the various elements into his narrative.  All in all it's amazing how fresh, how vivid, how real it all feels.  The novel contains as many unforgettable characters as any book I can think of--devastatingly acute psychological portraits that only show you how little the world has changed in a hundred years.  To name just a few: Cathy Ames, Adam Trask, Adam's man-servant Lee, Charles Trask, Cal Trask, Abra Bacon,  Tom Hamilton, and Sam Hamilton, the most engaging character in the whole novel and perhaps in all of Steinbeck's work.  Each crafted with unerring precision and in-sight.  

What's fascinating to consider too is that the Hamilton family is Steinbeck's real-life own.  (The young John appears as a minor character in the novel.)  Steinbeck himself is the first person narrator.  So there's a palpably personal element to the book that is absent from many of his other novels.  And yet, this isn't simply a family history; it's certainly not Steinbeck's.  It's a fiercely shaped novel, with the Hamiltons befriending and butting up against the Trasks, the fictional story of whom really comes to dominate the book and establish its biblical themes.  Steinbeck takes the story of these two families back as far as the Civil War and runs their story all the way past the end of World War One, making it a fine example of historical fiction in a couple ways.  The ninteenth century material is literally historic for the writer (who was born in 1902) and, in a more general sense, the book tries to provide, and does, a vivid portrayal of a stretch of time in the life of the country.  But, again, how seamlessly.  The fictional characters are no less real than the real ones--in some ways they are even more real--and both real and fictive are equally affected by contemporary history even as they add to that history.  Perhaps the greatest character of all is the Salinas Valley, the nature, topography, and geography of which affects nearly every action and outcome in the novel.  When it was published, Steinbeck claimed East of Eden as his best book, one that showed all he had learned about writing after more than two decades of practice.  That statement might reflect an artist's natural excitement for his latest project, but it also rings true.  If you want a read a historical novel in which the weight of history--personal, familial, eceonomic, regional, national, and international--is all but inescapable, this is a book you want to read.  But you'll be glad you read it for lots of other reasons too.


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