Travels With Charley; John Steinbeck

When the cover of a book is an odd green-and-black and the author has won a Nobel Prize for literature, do you automatically assume it will be a dense, academic read? Well, I did, and I'm happy to admit that John Steinbeck proved me wrong. His “Travels with Charley” wasn't just accessible, it was highly amusing as well, and I laughed — and laughed some more — as he travelled across America with Charley, his ‘old French gentleman poodle', in a custom-built truck called Rocinante. Why, a few pages down, I felt I was in the truck with them, admiring the raw, glowing beauty of autumn (‘as though the leaves gobbled the light of the autumn sun and then released it slowly'), and commenting on the sad state of American cities (‘like badger holes, ringed with trash — all of them — surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish'). Throughout the journey Steinbeck and Charley follow a happy routine: Charley wakes him up by sitting quietly beside his bed, staring into his face ‘with a sweet and forgiving look on his face'; and then they begin driving around, covering 40 States in all, amazed at how ‘incredibly huge' America really is, and yet sadly noting that ‘progress looks so much like destruction', the towns (Seattle) a lot bigger but a lot less prettier than the author remembered it.

It works because...

Steinbeck is a profoundly observant and perfectly amiable storyteller. He sets out on this trip when he's a 60-year-old with incurably itchy-feet ‘to try to learn something about America'. In the process, we learn plenty; that Niagara is just ‘very nice', but little known Wisconsin is wonderful (‘the air was rich with butter-coloured sunlight', ‘the land dripped richness, the fat cows and pigs gleaming against green'). He meets several people who long to trade lives with him — and that includes teenaged boys — and others for whom travelling is an unaffordable luxury, a dream (like the guardian at a lake, whose ‘want would ache in him all his life'). As many as 244 pages later, if you were to ask me, among all the places he visits and describes, where I would go, I will plump for the ancient, awe-inspiring redwood forests (in Southern Oregon), where in the ‘cathedral hush', ‘birds move in the dim light or flash like sparks through the stripes of sun, but they make little sound'. Why, I just have to close my eyes, and I'm already there…

You must try it too; travel with Charley, it's so much fun. Oh, and please don't judge books by their covers…

And this one stays with you...

Nothing can beat Steinbeck's portrait of his travelling companion, Charley. He was born 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 colour called bleu, and he is blue when he is clean. Charley is a born diplomat. He prefers negotiation to fighting, and properly so, since he is very bad at fighting. Only once in ten years has he been in trouble — when he met a dog who refused to negotiate. Charley lost a piece of his right-ear that time'.