If you’ve ever read a novel in one sitting, you know it’s a very different experience than nibbling your way through one over weeks or months or years. You’re dialed in. The characters are in your head—there’s no paging back to try to remember who’s who and where you are. The story is running through your veins in real time. You’re deep in that other world and pretty much out of this one. You’ve escaped.
Having someone read a great book to you, all in a go, is a rarer experience, but it can be just as good or better.
Very early on a Tuesday in August, before the sun lit the spires of downtown Chicago in my rearview mirror, I pushed play on the audiobook edition of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, narrated by Gary Sinise. Charley is not a novel but a memoir—the closest thing Steinbeck ever wrote to an autobiography. Late in life, secure in his status as literary lion and American icon, Steinbeck decided he was a little bit of a fraud. He was familiar with Salinas California, where he grew up, and New York, where he now lived, but otherwise this voice of America didn’t know America; he’d never even visited the in-between bits.
So he decided, better late than never, to go check it out –East to West, and back again in a camper truck with his aging “French gentleman” poodle, Charley.
Turned out I was going part of that way too. So I decided to hitch a ride.
I was ironbutting it from Chicago to Rapid City, S.D. — from The Great Lakes to the heart of the Great Plains — deadheading the car back from a family road trip. Normally, on an epic driving day like that I’d graze the radio airwaves, sampling the local fare: the hucksters and the crooners and that guy with the paranormal show who comes on at night. Time passes pleasantly enough that way, but you’ve nothing to show for it at the end. Popcorn tailings at the bottom of the box and vague memories of a day that, ultimately, didn’t matter. But a deep dive into literature: that’s something that does matter.
And literature Travels with Charley most certainly is, even though it’s not the big chew that Steinbeck’s novels are. It’s funny and conversational, acutely observed and sparkling with great turns-of-phrase that make you want to write them down. That’s a problem when you’re driving. I had a reporter’s notebook open on the passenger seat and kept trying to jot bon mots on the tiny pages. But it was like trying to capture the river in a bucket — the more I aimed to profit from the experience, the less I was in it — and ultimately I put down the pen and just let the narrator weave his spell.
Let me just say that next time Lila wants a bedtime story, I’m going to farm the job out to Gary Sinise (maybe he would work for scale). No way Steinbeck would have read his own work better. You can see why so many audiobook narrators are actors rather than just voice actors. It’s almost athletic the way a great actor can bring a whole raft of characters to life: the fey son of a tough-as-nails Midwest restaurant owner, the poisonously racist school moms of the Deep South. Even Charley gets a voice here, world-weary and sardonic and perfect.
Down the I-90 we all went together. It was 1960 when Steinbeck made his journey, but even then the traffic on the newly created Interstate highway system was too much for him. He keeps getting caught in the tide of cars and, “like a weak swimmer,” edged further and further right, toward the breakdown lane. At one point he misses the exits for Minneapolis/St. Paul and just gives up on those cities. Me, I stayed in the middle lane, with the windows up and the a/c on, cruising and dreamy.
The architect Frank Lloyd Wright had a cunning strategy in his house design that he called “compression and expansion”: intentionally tight hallways make the rooms you emerge into feel bigger. Driving out of a big city into pastureland has the same effect. It’s like you’re suddenly adrift in infinite space.
In Wisconsin I was still ahead of Steinbeck. As dairy farms gave way to wind farms, he started catching up. At the Missouri River he passed me. And by the time I hit Badlands National Park he’d already been there and duly recorded the experience: a landscape “like the work of an evil child.”
Steinbeck was suffering from congestive heart disease even as he set out on his road trip, and after Charley was published in 1962 he only lived six more years. He put everything he had left into this book. I was glad to have just given myself over to it. But it meant that I didn’t have anything concrete to take away from this great day.
A solution beckoned.
By the time Steinbeck pulled into his own driveway in Sag Harbor, his voyage complete and the story wrapped in a bow as a gift to his country, it wasn’t even suppertime for me.
So I listened to Charley again.
And this time I took notes.
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