Currently viewing the tag: "John Steinbeck"

After 100 years we know Hollywood can’t be trusted with reality. Whatever real or true story screenwriters like Oliver Stone (the imaginative “JFK”) or Danny Strong (the hilariously phony and  awkwardly titled “Lee Michaels’ the Butler”) tell, it’s invariably awful. From “Tortilla Flat” to multiple versions of “Of Mice and Men,” John Steinbeck’s fictional works have supplied the empty idea shops of Hollywood with dramatic fodder for …  78 years!!!!! Steven Spielberg apparently is going through with his threat to remake/ruin “The Grapes of Wrath” in time for the book’s 75th birthday next year. But so far no one in Tinseltown has turned “Travels With Charley” into a road movie. In this excerpt from my boffo literary expose “Dogging Steinbeck,”  I show that Hollywood’s disinterest in dramatizing Steinbeck’s book is a good thing.

‘Charley’ Doesn’t Go Hollywood, Thank God

Despite its flaws, “Travels With Charley’s” romantic version of searching for America by car has never fallen from the culture’s consciousness. Along with Kerouac’s “On the Road” – its hipper, edgier, happier and openly fictional older brother – it has become a classic American road book. It gave Charles Kuralt his idea for his popular “On the Road” segments for “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.” But so far, despite a lot of interest, it’s never been turned into a dumb sitcom or bad movie.

Not that Hollywood hasn’t tried. In 1963 no less than Sam Peckinpah wrote an unintentionally hilarious TV script for Warner Brothers’ television division dramatizing “Travels With Charley.” Not surprisingly, it included Steinbeck having two knockdown fistfights. Too horrible even for network TV’s standards, it was never made.

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In the early 1990s, Kevin Costner’s production company had an option on “Travels With Charley” with plans to shoot an eight-part miniseries. It died a deserved death. Knowing Hollywood, it wasn’t because Costner’s project was an incredibly stupid idea. It was probably because they couldn’t get Sam Peckinpah to direct.

Finally, somewhere in a file cabinet at HBO sits a less-tortured screenplay of “Travels With Charley.” Written in the early 2000s by Steinbeck’s son Thom, it’s not likely to include any fistfights but it apparently was written as if the book was true.

Unfortunately, in 1968, shortly before John Steinbeck died, “Travels With Charley” did travel to TV Land. Producer Lee Mendelson of “Peanuts” fame turned it into an hour-long “documentary” for NBC. Narrated by Steinbeck’s buddy Hank Fonda, who played an unseen but amply quoted Steinbeck, it was watched by tens of millions of Americans who didn’t want to watch what was on CBS or ABC that night.

An early example of the “docudrama” genre at its worst, it was presented by Mendelson as the true story of Steinbeck’s lonely journey. Skipping the southern leg of Steinbeck’s trip, Mendelson sent out a Rocinante-lookalike to retrace the “Charley” route from Sag Harbor to the top of Fremont Peak.

The dumbest mistake Mendelson made was hiring 15 actors to look into the camera and pretend to be the characters Steinbeck pretended he had met on his trip. Many of the performances are painful, but arguably the worst fictional character was our friend the mythical itinerant Shakespearean actor of Alice, North Dakota.

To heap hokum on top of hokum, Mendelson threw in a few silly cartoon segments and a hideous Rod McCuen song, “Me & Charley,” which was sung over and over by Glen Yarbrough whenever Charley streaked across the grassy fields of America. Mendelson paid $1,000 to rent a stand-in for the dead poodle, who, in a rare and merciful concession to reality, wasn’t made to talk.

The show’s last stop was high atop Fremont Peak, where Fonda delivered Steinbeck’s great lines from the book as the camera swept up the spectacular view. The program ended with Fonda standing next to Rocinante, as Charley sat in the cab. Fonda explains that Steinbeck’s trip didn’t end on Fremont Peak, but continued on through the South where he saw the agony of school integration in New Orleans and talked with Negroes and whites about the violent changes that were occurring.

After Fonda mistakenly says the 11-week trip was “over four months long,” he asks what it was that Steinbeck had learned about America. In a tight close-up, the man who played Tom Joad in the movie of “The Grapes of Wrath” reads two spliced-together passages from “Travels With Charley”:

It would be pleasant to be able to say of my travels with Charley, “I went out to find the truth about my country and I found it.” And then it would be such a simple matter to set down my findings and lean back comfortably with a fine sense of having discovered truths and taught them to my readers. I wish it were that easy …. What I have set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.

Fonda then looks into the camera and says, “John Steinbeck saw it one way. Charley saw it another way. And now it’s your turn if you so choose to pass that way and rearrange the world as you see it. Goodnight.” Millions of viewers had no reason to doubt that they had just watched the true story of Steinbeck’s journey, which, if Mendelson and NBC were to be believed, was a lonely “four-month” ride around America with a dog in a truck.

Shortly before Steinbeck’s death in late 1968, Mendelson screened his awful rendition of “Travels With Charley” for Steinbeck and Elaine in New York City. “Steinbeck was crying when the lights came on,” Mendelson remembered in a 2003 interview. “I didn’t know if he was crying because he hated it, but he turned to me and said, ‘That’s just the way the trip was.’” Poor Steinbeck. He was probably crying from guilt.

 

 

In the spring, as part of my never-ending saturation PR bombardment to get the MSM — and even NPR — to pay a little respect/attention to my Pulitzer Prize not-winning literary expose “Dogging Steinbeck,” I sent a pathetic plea to the producers of the always clever but mostly lefty-liberal radio hour, “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”

I’ve since sent moderator Peter Sagal, who looks like he could be my younger balder brother, several equally pathetic emails trying to get me and my road-tripping pal and fellow author Ethan Casey on the show. Peter Sagal seems like a nice guy on my kitchen radio, but apparently he is incapable of responding to emails that come his way, no matter how pathetic.

Here’s the original email I sent to WWDTM to alert them that I was going to be appearing on C-SPAN with everyone’s hero, including mine, Brian Lamb.

 

 

Hello WWDTM producers —

Sainted CSPAN Founder Brian Lamb liked “Dogging Steinbeck” so much he booked me for his Sunday, March 3, 8 p.m. “Q&A” program.

My fellow libertarian Nick Gillespie of Reason mag loved it and called my 11,276-mile, coast-to-coast celebration of America “Whitmanesque,” which I think was a compliment.

Supreme Travel Master Paul Theroux liked it almost as much as my 95-year-old mom.

PJ O’Rourke has a paperback copy of it at his N.H. redoubt and he knows who I am.

The Weekly Standard glowingly reviewed it.

The New York Times editorial page and NPR’s “On the Media” endorsed my findings that Steinbeck had pretty much lied his butt off in “Travels With Charley,” which for 50 years was sold, marketed, reviewed and taught to be the nonfiction, true, accurate and honest account of what he did on his iconic road trip in 1960, who he met and what he really thought about America and its people.

It wasn’t nonfiction. Not even close.

To put it in academic terms, Steinbeck’s last major work was a big crock of fiction and lies — and Penguin Group admitted the fiction part last fall by having Jay Parini insert a disclaimer into the introduction to the latest edition of “Charley” that says the book is so fictionalized and dramatized that it should not be taken literally.

I’m a little sorry I came along and spoiled everyone’s fun. But Steinbeck’s beloved book — 1.5 million sales, nonfiction best-sellerdom in 1962 — is, as I bluntly say, “a literary fraud.” Don’t tell Oprah, but it’s in the same fact-fudging league as “Three Cups of Tea,” “A Million Little Pieces” and Mr. Capote’s increasingly besmirched “In Cold Blood.”

“Dogging Steinbeck” is an Amazon ebook and the listing there contains everything you need to see that I’m a real journalist who retraced Steinbeck’s original route around the USA, slept in my car 20 nights (10 Walmart lots, a pier, a beach, a riverbank, a used car lot ), lucked into a 50-year-old scoop and ticked off the Steinbeck Studies Industrial Complex — a synopsis, blurbs and sample chapters. I’m beginning to think I should be a movie.

Below is the adult press release I’ve written (this is a DYI book of quality drive-by journalism — from idea to reporting and writing and editing and photographing to email pitches and distributing paperback copies of my book to local bookstores in Pittsburgh, where my aging TV sportscaster brothers and I operated a powerful family multimedia dynasty.

Thank you for your time. I’m better on radio than TV, though I guess I wasn’t as bad as I thought with Brian Lamb because they still have the show set for March 3 at 8 on CSPAN’s “Q&A.”

The release:

Dogging Steinbeck

Discovering America and Exposing
The Truth About ‘Travels With Charley’

First Bill Steigerwald took John Steinbeck’s classic “Travels With Charley” and used it as a map for his own cross-country road trip in search of America. Then he proved Steinbeck’s iconic nonfiction book was a 50-year-old literary fraud. A true story about the triumph of truth.

“Steinbeck falsified his trip. I am delighted that you went deep into this.” — Paul Theroux, Author of “The Tao of Travel:”

“No book gave me more of a kick this year than Bill Steigerwald’s investigative travelogue…” — Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason.com

Bill Steigerwald discovered two important truths when he retraced the route John Steinbeck took around the country in 1960 and turned into “Travels With Charley in Search of America.” He found out the great author’s “nonfiction” road book was a deceptive, dishonest and highly fictionalized account of his actual 10,000-mile road trip. And he found out that despite the Great Recession and national headlines dripping with gloom and doom, America was still a big, beautiful, empty, healthy, rich, safe, clean, prosperous and friendly country.

“Dogging Steinbeck” is the lively, entertaining, opinionated story of how Steigerwald stumbled onto a literary scoop, won praise from the New York Times editorial page and forced a major book publisher to finally confess the truth about “Travels With Charley” after 50 years.

But it’s also a celebration of the America he found and the dozens of ordinary Americans he met on his 11,276-mile high-speed drive from Maine to Monterey. Despite the Great Recession and national headlines dripping with gloom and doom, Steigerwald’s expedition into the American Heartland in the fall of 2010 reaffirmed his faith in the innate goodness of the American people and their ability to withstand the long train of abuse from Washington and Wall Street.

Part literary detective story, part travel book, part book review, part primer in drive-by journalism, part commentary on what a libertarian newspaperman thinks is right and wrong about America, “Dogging Steinbeck” is entirely nonfiction. True Nonfiction.

‘Dogging Steinbeck’ is available at select bookstores and at Amazon.com as an ebook.

Bill Steigerwald is a well-traveled Pittsburgh journalist and a veteran libertarian columnist. He worked as an editor and writer/reporter/columnist for the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s, the Post-Gazette in the 1990s and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in the 2000s. He retired from the daily newspaper business in March 2009. He and his wife Trudi live south of Pittsburgh in the woods.

In the hot August of 2010, before global cooling began turning our summers into fall, I spent several days in the fabulous Morgan Library & Museum in downtown New York reading the original handwritten transcript of “Travels With Charley.”

My comparison of the manuscript with the published book — something no Steinbeck scholar bothered to do in 50 years — proved illuminating. Here, in this free excerpt of “Dogging Steinbeck,” is how I describe my visit to Mr. Morgan’s treasure house of art and artifacts:

 

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‘Discovering’ ‘Charley’s’ First Draft

My pre-trip research ended with a bang three weeks later in New York City when I did something no one in the world had done in four years. I went to the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan and read the first draft of “Travels With Charley in Search of America.”

The handwritten manuscript – along with a typed and edited copy – had been stored at the Morgan like a holy relic for almost half a century. Few scholars, graduate students and critics had bothered to study it. If they had, the “‘Travels With Charley’ Myth” might have been debunked decades ago. To be fair, the manuscript is not something anybody can just pop into the Morgan Library and paw over. John Pierpont Morgan’s gift to posterity holds one of the world’s greatest collections of art, books and music. Security is Pentagon-tight, inside and out. You’ve got to first establish that you are a legitimate researcher or writer and make an appointment. Once you make it past the security checkpoint, you’re escorted to the reading room. You have to wash your hands, use pencils only and handle research material like it’s sacred nitroglycerin. You can’t take photos or make photocopies because of copyright restrictions.

For three days in late summer I sat in the Morgan’s reading room like a monk. The “Charley” manuscript, kept there since Steinbeck donated it in 1962, is broken up into five or six handwritten chunks. Written entirely in his barely decipherable scribble, with hardly a word crossed out or changed, each page is filled from top-to-bottom and edge-to-edge. It’s mostly in pencil on carefully numbered yellow or white legal pads. Taking notes in longhand, I compared the first draft of what Steinbeck had given the working title “In Quest of America” with the copy of “Travels With Charley” stored on my smart-phone’s Kindle app. According to Declan Kiely, the Morgan’s curator of literary and historical manuscripts, fewer than six people had looked at the manuscript since 2000.  I was the first since 2006.

I learned important clues that helped me fill in some blank spots about Steinbeck’s actual trip. I also saw how much the manuscript had been edited. There were dozens of minor and major edits. The most important ones entirely removed his wife Elaine’s presence from the West Coast and stripped out 99 percent of his partisan political commentary. Given what I was learning, the most ironic edit deleted Steinbeck’s thoughts about what is really real and the writer’s struggle/duty to straighten out the “chaos” of reality and make it understandable and “reasonably real” for a reader. The most justifiable edit removed a paragraph of filth and racial hatred that would have given “Travels With Charley” an X-rating, outraged the public and crippled its sales.

The manuscript was the big smoking gun – the smoking artillery piece. Reading it was shocking and exhilarating. I couldn’t believe what I had found – or that it had been just sitting there in Manhattan for 50 years waiting to be discovered. It confirmed and reinforced my suspicions about the dubious veracity of much of “Travels With Charley.”

The first draft also explained the book’s persistent vagueness about time and place. It was not due solely to Steinbeck’s aversion to writing a travelogue or his lack of note taking. It was a result of wily editing by Viking’s editors, which hid the frequently luxurious and leisurely nature of Steinbeck’s road trip and made it seem like he spent most of his time alone.

After my last day of deciphering Steinbeck’s handwriting, I left the cool quiet of the Morgan Library and popped back onto the baked streets of Manhattan. It was 4:05. I set out for Penn Station to catch a train back to Secaucus, where my car was parked and ready to take me home. New York had so much pure city packed into a small space it was hard for someone from Pittsburgh to believe. I’d never want to live in NYC. It was 40 years too late for that adventure. But it was amazing to see the crazy energy and throbbing humanity of a real city at work and play. It was nothing like the open street markets and anarchic traffic of Lima or Guatemala City, the only teeming Third World madhouses I’d ever seen. But the sidewalks were thick with commerce and hurrying streams of people of every lifestyle and color.

Near the corner of Madison Avenue and East 33rd Street, two miles from the apartment Steinbeck died in, a prim matron with a plastic bag in one hand and a leash in the other waited for her toy poodle to take a dump at the base of a baby tree. On 34th Street a homeless man with a wild beard and dirty white shirt suddenly lunged out of the passing throng and rammed his bony shoulder hard into mine. It was no accident, it hurt, and it taught me a lesson to keep my eye out for trouble in the oncoming flow of humanity.

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Closing in on Madison Square Garden and its basement of train tracks, I began tail-gaiting a hotshot in a blue blazer with a cell phone to his ear as he weaved through the crowd. He was young but had gray hair and carried a man bag swelling with paperwork. I didn’t know it, but like me he was hustling to Penn Station’s Track 11 to catch the 4:32 to Secaucus. On the un-crowded train I deliberately sat across the aisle from the hotshot so I could eavesdrop on his end of the conversation, which he made no effort to suppress. “At two billion dollars,” he said, as if he were talking about the price of eggs, “we’re going to make 800 k. I’m OK with one basis point…. We’d still be above two billion. Do me a favor. Check my math and fire me an email.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but it wasn’t how tough it was to make a living on Wall Street in the Great Recession. During my brief ride to Secaucus I scrawled what I had learned from reading the Steinbeck manuscript in my Professional Reporter’s Notebook: “Charley’s a fraud. Steinbeck himself provided the details of his trip – the real ones – and betrays ‘C’ for the fraud it is.” It was the first time I had used the f-word to describe his beloved travel book. It wouldn’t be the last.

The great Phil Caputo, author of “A Rumor of War” and other fine books, took a sweet 16,000-mile road trip in the fall of 2011 with his trophy wife, trophy dogs and trophy pickup truck with Airstream travel van.

The 80 Americans he met from Key West to Nome are the main attraction in “The Longest Road,” which is being reviewed and promoted everywhere and will be available July 16.

As I found out while trying to get a publisher for what became “Dogging Steinbeck,” road books are tough sells — unless you’re famous.

Maybe Caputo would like to join Ethan Casey and me this fall on our West Coast book-promoting tour, which we are calling Two American Road Trips and is further explained at our Facebook Page.

“The Longest Road,” as described on Amazon:

One of America’s most respected writers takes an epic journey across America, Airstream in tow, and asks everyday Americans what unites and divides a country as endlessly diverse as it is large.

Standing on a wind-scoured island off the Alaskan coast, Philip Caputo marveled that its Inupiat Eskimo schoolchildren pledge allegiance to the same flag as the children of Cuban immigrants in Key West, six thousand miles away. And a question began to take shape: How does the United States, peopled by every race on earth, remain united? Caputo resolved that one day he’d drive from the nation’s southernmost point to the northernmost point reachable by road, talking to everyday Americans about their lives and asking how they would answer his question.

So it was that in 2011, in an America more divided than in living memory, Caputo, his wife, and their two English setters made their way in a truck and classic trailer (hereafter known as “Fred” and “Ethel”) from Key West, Florida, to Deadhorse, Alaska, covering 16,000 miles. He spoke to everyone from a West Virginia couple saving souls to a Native American shaman and taco entrepreneur. What he found is a story that will entertain and inspire readers as much as it informs them about the state of today’s United States, the glue that holds us all together, and the conflicts that could cause us to pull apart.

Call it TART, for short, but don’t confuse Two American Road Trips with any stinking Big Government rescue scheme.

TART is the unofficial acronym of “Two authors, two road trips, two Americas,” a co-venture in travel book promoting and selling that’s being put together by me and my new pal Ethan Casey of Seattle.

Ethan — billed as a liberal and author of “Home Free” — and I — billed as a true-blue libertarian — are going to hit the highway this fall and appear together at libraries and indy bookstores from coast-to-coast.

We’ll each spew our versions of the America we saw from the front seats of our cars. Ethan out-drove me, wracking up 18,000 miles in the fall of 2012 to my puny 11,276.

So far we’re only officially booked into venues in Seattle and Mt. Lebanon, a Pittsburgh suburb.

But more dates are going to come, especially in the Bay Area and Monterey County, aka Steinbeck Country, during late October and early November.

Anyone finding this page knows the pain I’ve caused Steinbeck fans. But here’s a little blurb from the PR department about young Mr. Casey:

In the fall of 2012 Ethan Casey drove clockwise around America during the election season.

The result is “Home Free,” an entertaining and edifying work of personal reporting in the spirit of his previous travel narratives, “Alive and Well in Pakistan” (“Intelligent and compelling” – Mohsin Hamid) and “Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti” (“Heartfelt” – Paul Farmer).

“I’m now turning my attention to another society struggling through a time of confusion, economic and political distress and transition,” says Casey, who’s working hard to finish “Home Free” by fall. “America is susceptible to the same forces and trends as any other country.”

 

My debut solo speaking performance on behalf of my book “Dogging Steinbeck” occurred without a hitch or a lawsuit Wednesday night in the lovely Toledo suburb of Perrysburg.

Thanks to the promotional efforts of Richard Baranowski of the Way Library, I was written up nicely beforehand by Arielle Stambler and in a local paper by Baranowski. About 60 multi-diverse humans attended, all lovely, all eager to learn about how I discovered that “Travels With Charley” was a literary fraud.

No one threw anything or even booed. And 12 people forked over real money for my book.

In the fall 2011 issue of the Steinbeck Review, Tom Barden, a smart and sensible English professor and dean at the University of Toledo, reviewed two 2010 “Travels With Charley”-centric books.

The quarterly’s editor, who edited the 2012 book “Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War,” looked at “Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America” by Bill Barich and “Travels with Max: In Search of Steinbeck’s America Fifty Years Later” by Gregory Zeigler.

First, however, professor Barden validated my discoveries about the lack of veracity in “Charley.” He based his opinion not on my book “Dogging Steinbeck,” which did not exist yet, but on what I had revealed in my April 2011 Reason magazine article, “Sorry, Charley.” Barden also said that Steinbeck’s serial inventions were no surprise or shock to anyone, especially academics like him, since Steinbeck was a novelist.

Here’s what Barden wrote in the Review:

I was not particularly drawn to the premise of Barich’s and Zeigler’s books. Delving into 21st century America’s soul via Steinbeck’s 1961 Travels with Charley struck me as too contrived. But readers of Steinbeck Review deserve an appraisal of the resulting volumes, especially in light of Bill Steigerwald’s “Sorry, Charley” essay in the April 2011 issue of Reason magazine, so here goes.

First, I should weigh in on Steigerwald. His research into motel bills, restaurant checks, and private letters made what I found to be a thoroughly convincing case that Steinbeck’s narrative in Travels with Charley in Search of America did not reflect anything close to his actual trip. Steigerwald presented ample documentation that Steinbeck spent most of his time in posh motor hotels eating good dinners with his wife Elaine, who was with him much more than he let on. The responses to Steigerwald’s revelations varied from incensed (Steinbeck’s daughter-in-law), to defensive (Steinbeck scholars Jay Parini and Susan Shillinglaw), to sympathetic toward Steinbeck (travel writer Paul Theroux). My response was basically–so what? I was reminded of John Steinbeck IV’s comment about his father’s book in The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck. Speaking for his brother Thom and himself, he wrote “we were convinced that he never talked to any of those people in Travels with Charley. He just sat in his camper and wrote all that shit. He was too shy. He was really frightened of people who saw through him. He couldn’t have handled that amount of interaction. So the book is actually a great novel.” (p. 151) Exactly. Oh my, he invented most of the content of Travels with Charley…zoot alors! Not only that, people, he paid for stories from Mexicans when he worked at the Spraekel’s Sugar factory in Salinas as a teenager and used them later—like that one about a nursing mother who saves a starving old man by breastfeeding him.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Steigerwald’s research and the ensuing controversy was the clear assumption by everybody concerned that Steinbeck’s book is still worth discussing after fifty years. I think Travels with Charley does still matter. But I don’t think it matters because of its veracity (or lack thereof), or its ideas, or its insights about American culture. To me, it still matters because it is packed from beginning to end with terrific and terrifically idiosyncratic writing at the sentence level. Pick it up and start reading randomly and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll run into passages like this one about the giant redwoods in Northern California—“In the redwoods nearly the whole of daylight is a quiet time. Birds move in the dim light or flash like sparks through the stripes of sun, but they make little sound.” (p. 171)

So, to return to the books under review, I used the yardstick of Steinbeck’s spectacular prose to review Barich and Zigler’s books. By that measure, one of them holds up pretty well and the other doesn’t. I’ll start with the latter. Zeigler’s little yappy-looking dog Max appears on both the front and back covers of his book and is also featured in many of the photos interspersed throughout the text. I did not take the dog or the illustrations as a good sign. Flipping through the text before I started reading, I felt as if I were about to be subjected to somebody’s boring vacation slideshow. My suspicions were confirmed when I started reading—the prose, like the dog, was too cute, the Steinbeck trope was too labored, and any intellectual or emotional stimulation was pretty much absent. Zeigler covered 15,000 miles in nine weeks, and it felt like it took that long to get through his book. He wove references to Steinbeck’s trip, his poodle, his biography, and even his family’s feud over copyright issues into his narrative, and all the while maintained a running commentary on such interesting roadside attractions as the Lion’s Den Adult Bookstore, geezer geyser gazers, a veterinary insemination operation that bragged “we do cows,” and the general beauty and/or scuzziness of the American landscape. But, for me, it never coalesced into a meaningful trip or travel narrative. The cover blurb says “Travels with Max offers a retrospective on Steinbeck and his work, as well as an insightful, humorous and upbeat perspective on modern America.” But I didn’t get the insights, the humor, or the retrospectives. For instance, here’s Zeigler’s description of a saguaro cactus that was located in too close proximity to a golf course: “Wild hitters like me had slammed drives into their green flesh. Some were studded with several balls, like buttons on a stout man’s vest.” I couldn’t help comparing that negatively with Steinbeck’s description of the giant redwoods.

Barich’s book, on the other hand, is well conceived, well written, and, fortunately, un-illustrated. Even before starting, I was impressed by the effusive cover blurbs about Barich’s writing. Jim Harrison, a Michigan-based poet and novelist for whom I have huge respect said simply “Barich is a splendid prose stylist.” And Larry McMurtry, a master storyteller by anybody’s standards, agreed. They are right. He writes with measured dignity and has a good ear for dialog and a sharp eye for telling detail.

As to content, Barich follows Steinbeck’s lead in avoiding major cities and typical tourist attractions. Although he visits Washington, D.C. and passes through St. Louis on Interstate 70 (where the drivers’ aggression terrified him), he focuses mostly on small towns like Culpeper, Virginia, Chillicothe, Ohio and Florence, Kansas. There’s humor in Barich’s book, but it is not of the corny variety Zeigler indulged and it is more connected to ideas and thoughtful observations. In Shenandoah National Park, for example, he notices that “Americans used to travel to beautiful spots to get away from it all, but now they bring it all with them.” Unlike Steinbeck’s, Barich’s road trip is one-way–east to west. He arrives in California via Needles and makes his way to Monterey on the coast, where he muses at length on “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden,” both of which he loves and respects. Finally, he pulls in to San Francisco – a city he lived in for many years – just in time for Election Day, 2008.

That election looms large over Long Way Home. The book ends in a mood buoyed by the fact that America, for all its historical racism and injustice, has just elected the young, smart and eloquent Barack Hussein Obama. All through the book, but especially at the end, he rejects the world-weariness and gloom that hung over Steinbeck’s trip with Charley. Where Steinbeck found moral and spiritual malaise, Barich found America renewing itself after eight years of George W. Bush. It is a thrill to feel, but that buoyancy seems pretty raveled and frayed now. Bigotry, ignorance and fear-mongering didn’t fade away; in fact, they seem to have gotten stronger in response to Obama’s cerebral calmness. The wrenching ending of Steinbeck’s book stands in contrast to Barich’s optimistic finale, but the venom of those “cheerleaders” who screamed profanities at little African American girls as they walked to school in Civil Rights Era Mississippi is on daily display now on Fox News, on talk radio, and in much of the Republican Party. On finishing Barich’s book, I felt a strong surge of missing John Steinbeck. I think he would be more effective than most of our current progressive voices in confronting and refuting today’s Rush Limbaughs, Pat Robertsons and Glenn Becks head-on.