This is a turgid sort of book. I knew nothing about it going in other than that Steinbeck is a practitioner of the High Seriousness and that he is one of the people to define what California is, so I wasn’t sure what to expect from it. I definitely did not expect psychopathic hookers, so score one for Steinbeck in the surprise department. You could call this a multigenerational family saga, and it has some of the interest and weaknesses of that genre: you want to know how things will come out, but the authorial temptation for redemption narratives is regrettably high.
The opening, which gives us the entire childhood of the main character, Adam Trask, and his half-brother Charles, is actually very interesting in its depiction of dirt-poor post-Civil War life (the father becomes a very successful fraudulent government military expert who later leaves the boys a lot of sketchy money!) except that it is so unremittingly depressing that it’s sure to weed out all but the most motivated readers. Both brothers yearn for love they can’t get from their respective parents, who are both broken themselves and also subscribe to harsh principles of child-raising, so no one feels loved. This doesn’t bring the brothers together, of course, but pits them against each other, with Adam in the role of the pure soul burned by life and Charles as The One Who Understands Evil.
The themes of the novel are set up here, and so much much later in the novel when Adam has to name the twins his psycho hooker wife abandoned when she fled from his repressively moral clutches, we do not actually need the lengthy discussion of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel that Steinbeck injects via his gratuitous educated secondary characters. (He ends up naming the sons Caleb and Aaron. Like Cain and Abel and Charles and Adam. Same initials HMMMM. I bet there are several thousand undergrad papers about this symbolism available on the Internet.) The novel is working out questions of heredity and individual free will, and of generational debt, and of self-fashioning in a changing America, and so on and so forth. Like many such novels it ends with the First World War, which has always been a convenient way to truncate plot lines: see Downton Abbey.
Here are some parts I enjoyed:
- The parts about Northern California land and landscape.
- The parts about post-frontier and small-town life there.
- The characters who are thrown in there to cast the light of literature and philosophy over brutish, meaningless life because they have Read Books. This is a somewhat ridiculous literary device, but the characters themselves (a well-read but not very successful rancher and the main character’s Chinese cook) are enjoyable company.
- Whorehouse gossip.
- The family stories about Samuel Hamilton, the literary neighbor: the Internet says he’s based on Steinbeck’s actual family. Hamilton’s family is a loving but not completely happy one based on a marriage between an intellectual husband and a pragmatist wife, and their kids go very different ways, and one of them is a woman who creates a little women’s circle and haven in her dressmaking shop and then after a disappointment in love dies of, apparently, stomach cancer. Her sister (John Steinbeck’s mother) is a strongwilled teacher who gives it up to get married. The brothers are not strictly allegorical, either. I could read about these people a lot more.
Here are some parts I really didn’t enjoy:
- The early parts are sickening. So much beating and abuse and general yuck, right there on the page. Yes, we get that brutality is not a modern invention. No, we don’t need to wallow in it.
- Even though there was abuse in her childhood, Cathy the psycho hooker is more or less depicted as a crazy psychopath, and yet she also is incredibly smart and competent at work–she gets her claws into a whorehouse owner by earning everyone’s trust and running the place flawlessly down to saving money on the meals while improving the cooking. But instead of getting her own whorehouse, she decides it would be easier and more convenient to kill the owner of this one and then turn it into an EVIL whorehouse devoted to S & M hijinks. She collects photos* of community leaders getting their rocks off from whips etc., but never actually blackmails any of them for cash. Apparently she just can’t resist living in an atmosphere of petty criminality, sadism and cowering minions? This is weak.
- Adam Trask is a nearly unlovable character. His purity seems to consist almost entirely of being a dumbass who can’t recognize evil. And he is awful and controlling to Cathy in the guise of saving her. Why do other characters find him so appealing?
- It’s very much a Between Men book. OK, Aaron’s fiancee Abra gets a look-in toward the end, but her life decisions aren’t significant and she has no interests.
I’m not sorry I read this, but if I were a slower reader I might be annoyed to have spent almost 600 pages reading a book that is so heavy-handed, instead of the Cliff Notes.
*On reflection, how is Cathy getting these photos made given pre-WW I film technology? Does she have an actual brothel photographer on staff and do the developing onsite? I am skeptical.