Meeting Knausgaard - My Struggle to and at and briefly after The Norwegian-American Literary Festival
Facing backwards on the train from North White Plains to Grand Central Station I opened up a copy of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Book Five and started to read.
He had just finished his first year of teaching at a school in northern Norway as a 19 year old and had been accepted to a writing school in Bergen. He spent the summer drinking, swimming and writing through Europe with a friend. He carried a manuscript of his first novel in his backpack the entire trip. He felt like a writer.
When he arrived back in his home country, he was penniless and had gone without a good meal in weeks. He called his dad to see if he could stop by his house to visit. His father said it wasn’t a good time and he couldn’t just surprise with him a call like that. Knausgaard hung up with a shrug.
This was the first twenty pages of the book. It read easily; the prose wasn’t fussy, it was simple and carried you along.
The train submerged after the Harlem-125th street stop and I stowed the book away in my backpack along with a copy of Book 4 of the series, and the author’s 2nd book A Time For Everything. I realized I was traveling in a strange city with his manuscript in a backpack—just as he had done. I sat back in my chair, inching into Manhattan, and enjoyed the thought that me and Knausgaard were star-crossed, somehow linked, and fated to meet.
That was the idea behind this after all.
The annual Norwegian-American Literary Festival put on by The Paris Review was taking place in New York over the weekend. Karl Ove Knausgaard would be in town reading, moderating discussions and interviewing other writers. I was sent on official bookstore business to attend an event, get a copy of his book signed for the store and write about it. Though I would only be able to go to one event and have to be in and out of New York in less than 24 hours, I was excited for the opportunity. I had spent the past couple months reading everything Knausgaard. Adding up the pages of articles and books, I may have read more of his writings than any other author. I swallowed Books One through Four of the My Struggle series. I never tired of the two thousand or so pages of his thoughts and memories and cigarettes and beers and embarrassments he weeded through in all their hairy and mundane anti-glory. I read his articles in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, the Times and The New York Magazine. I watched videos of him walking through New York and Stockholm smoking a cigarette pushing a hanging silver finger of hair behind his ear, talking in a soft Nordic lisp, his hands accenting in front of him like he was molding clay on a wheel. I felt close to him. It was a faux-intimacy, but it was still something—it was there.
The event was taking place at a bookstore in Chelsea on 10th Avenue between the 21st and 22nd street blocks. I got off the train in Grand Central and made my way to the number 7 subway. It was 6 PM and the discussion started at 7. I wanted to get there early because I figured it would be well attended since it was put on by the most reputable literary journal on the planet and was led by one of the biggest names in literature in the 21st century. I walked with purpose. I weaved in and out of pedestrians, maintaining pace and sure step, keeping my upper body still as my calves tightened and legs wheeled, bringing me deep into the chaos of the Metro turnstiles. I read the signs directing me to the 7 train without stopping, tacking slightly to get where I needed to be.
I didn’t let up until I was on the platform, pinched into a crowd of mostly tourists trying to get to Times Square—the only living boy in New York
Why go to Times Square when you’re in New York? Its so crowded and gross. What a waste. I thought.
I watched as more people poured down the steps. A lot of people were wearing Mets hats and t-shirts and I realized I’d barely seen in any Yankees gear. I thought that was classic—the Mets go to the World Series the previous year and suddenly everyone from Chelsea to Long Island is a Mets fan. Meanwhile their Yankee shirts and hats are stowed away in their closets ’til the team makes a push for the pennant and it suddenly becomes fun to be a fan and wear pinstripes again like they never stopped.
Typical New Yorkers, I thought as the train pulled up and waited for the passengers to exit before pulling off my backpack and carrying in front of me by the handle as I boarded.
This was how the real New Yorkers did it and I took pride in knowing that.
The 34th street and Hudson Yards station was the last stop on the line. The station was clean and felt new. It was deep below the city and when I was walking up the escalators I looked down and felt dizzy around the rim of my eyes. They were the steepest escalators I had ever been on and I leaned forward to make sure I didn’t tilt back. I slowly continued my ascent.
I surfaced into lower Manhattan and walked half a block to 10th avenue. It was 6:30. I passed a McDonalds. I had eaten there before when I was waiting for a bus back to Boston. All the bus rides from Boston to New York to D.C. and back I had ever taken passed through me in a quick nightmare of bad internet connections and sore ass cheeks.
I considered a Big Mac and fries. How uncouth it would be to show up to a Paris Review event with a McDonalds bag. I shook off the fast food sirens and walked the 12 blocks south to the bookstore without having to stop for traffic. My trip from Beverly, Massachusetts to lower Manhattan was one of the finest ever taken, a marvel in efficiency and a triumph for United States infrastructure and public transportation, and it went unnoticed as I approached the bookstore. People were spilling out its doors and a crowd of corduroy jackets and other hip coats talked on the sidewalk. I peeked through the store windows. It was one room with floor to ceiling book shelves which corralled a parliament of literary groupies getting rowdy in their own way. They pointed out familiar titles on the shelves to friends and neighbors, hitting them with flash criticism, adjusting their shapely and bright eyewear and fanning themselves.
It was clear that everyone was there for Knausgaard. His books were curled on their laps like cats. His name was coming off tongues like bad breath. It felt like a generous gesture more than an accurate labeling for The Paris Review to call it The Norwegian- American Literary Festival rather than The Karl Ove Knausgaard Fan Fest.
Ironically, I found myself judging the people crammed into the bookstore. They probably started arriving hours in advance just to hear one man speak, to see one man moderate a discussion between other authors. I was comfortable distancing myself from the situation, standing on the sidewalk looking in through glass, not talking to anyone.
I played it off as cool—my fascination with the author was different, more intellectual, more grounded, more something.
And that, I think, was the rub. What drove my harsh thoughts towards the supposed posers attending the event was that deep down I decided Knausgaard and I were already friends. We were in the midst of a relationship. I had put up with his crap, his shame and mistakes and cruelty for two thousand pages already and I knew there was more to come. And because I often found myself thinking yes! whenever I read his work, often seeing myself in his most shame-ridden 18 or 30 year old thoughts, I figured he saw me there as well. The fact that he did not know my name or had never touched my hand or looked into my face seemed trivial. It was going to happen; it was about to happen. Just because the event had yet to pass on a linear perception of time did not mean conceptually the moment had not occurred already with great success, bearing much fruit.
I decided to take a seat on a curb while I waited for the event to start. It was in the shade and being able to unload my backpack from my shoulders was a relief after walking from the subway station. My back was wet with sweat and I leaned back against the metal bars of the city park gate behind me to cool off.
I imagined meeting him: Karl Ove Knausgaard making his way through the milling dilettantes in the front of the store to sit down on the curb next to me. After a moment of silence, where he’d light his cigarette and take a needed drag, he’d lean over in my direction and crack a sly joke through a breath of smoke about how these kinds of things were so silly and awkward, filled with all fake people—implying that we were not fake, confirming that he did in fact know me.
Then we’d ditch the event and get pizza.
Nothing seemed to be happening in the store so I got out my copy of A Time for Everything from my back pack and started to read. Pedestrians walked by and I eyed their shoes, their legs, their dogs on leashes over the pages of my book.
The book did not have the same feel as My Struggle. It was more literary in its use of devices. It was ekphrastic and ambitious and philosophically and theologically charged. It felt like Knausgaard was getting at something. A Manhattan sidewalk was not the ideal place to read such a book. But, superficially, the specific setting seemed fitting. Shouldn’t every one be hanging outside a Knausgaard event and reading his book right now? Read: am I the only one who is doing this right?
After awhile, I looked up from the book to check the time. People were speaking a language I assumed to be Norwegian nearby. Ten feet to my left, a tall man with a sports coat over a t-shirt stood smoking a cigarette. He was talking and nodding his head to a man in a sports coat and jeans sitting on the curb. His arms were resting on the tops of his knees with a cigarette pinched in his fingers.
This was Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Nervous excitement shot into my stomach, dogged soon after by embarrassment. There I was reading a book when the author of that book, the one I’d driven from Massachusetts to see, was sitting on the same curb as me no more than ten feet away.
How long had he been sitting there? Surely he noticed I was reading his book. Were they talking about me in Norwegian right now?
I felt like an idiot. It was like going to a professional baseball game but watching the television screens the entire time instead of the actual players. I felt myopic, oblivious—I was completely embarrassed. I quickly put the book away and tried to keep myself from staring at him. I’d do a slow scan of the sidewalk and steal a good look at the author before rubbing my chin and focusing on something up the street. I kept him in my peripherals.
I had to say something to him.
I ferreted through my brain trying to think of any good jokes or one-liners that could start a conversation. I needed to be normal, but I wanted to be memorable. A guy in his mid-twenties loitered close-by. He had spotted Knausgaard too and his legs manifested a similar debate raging in his head. His awkwardness was palpable and I squirmed at his squirming. But then he went for it. I watched as he walked over and introduced himself and Knausgaard politely shook his hand and stood up in response, nodding his head and smiling in appreciation. The conversation ended soon after and the guy walked away.
I convinced myself that Knausgaard was just being nice, and that he hated that kind of interaction with every cell in his body; so much so that he’d write a New York Times article on the stupidness of literary fandom and how it was really grounded selfish possessiveness and superficiality.
I was so jealous. I knew I could never approach him like that—a total cold call. I had soiled it by over thinking the situation. It had to be somewhat natural if we were to meet and I sat on the curb for ten more minutes watching more and more people notice and approach him and shake his head and introduce themselves. Finally, it was 7:30 and Knausgaard threw away his fourth cigarette and walked towards the bookstore.
The crowd parted as he approached. He seemed taller than everyone there. Heads turned as he entered the bookstore and wound his way through the mass of people to the small table at the front of the room. I followed behind him as far as I could before the gap in the crowd resealed itself. I just got my feet within the frame of the door.
He made a joke with a wary smile, and a fair laugh was offered up in response. The event had begun.
If I leaned slightly I had a view of Knausgaard’s face hunched into the tabletop microphone. I felt like I was watching the discussion through a keyhole. The street noises were loud behind me and blocked out a lot of the conversation. The two audios see-sawed in my ears, competed for my attention, as my heels rocked on the doorstep of the bookstore, trying not to fall into the woman in front, or behind, me.
The event did not last long. Many in the store cleared out quickly, looking to surface for fresh air and the sight of dusk funneling through to the Chelsea streets. Others lingered, arms laden with the familiar square hardcovers of the My Struggle books, and started to form a line at the front table where Knausgaard sat. I made my way to the end of the line. I tried to look casual, smiling at strangers, as if that made me seem more like I belonged there. As if, getting a couple books signed by the Norwegian author was an afterthought: oh, since I’m here I might as well…
In reality, I fretted over what I would say to him. There was no chickening out now. I was being pushed forward by the people behind me. I was going to meet him. I was resolute in being articulate—but not chatty. The last thing I wanted to be was annoying. I decided I’d mention the incident outside: how I was reading his book right next to him on the curb without even noticing he was sitting next to me. That would be good. It was a simple story, a little bit funny and I decided to lead with a line about how I felt like an idiot about the situation. The tone would be light and self-deprecating, the furthest from obnoxious and braggy. Knausgaard would find it charming and maybe feel comfortable throwing out some of his own banter. Maybe he would even recognize me! And then make a joke about how he felt nervous about approaching me, or how he didn’t want to disturb my reading experience. Ha! I was giddy with the thought as I waddled my way closer to the table.
A man with sunglasses and a dog stood in front of me in line. He was tall and seemed to stare straight forward like he was looking at some books on the top shelf against the wall. When it was his turn he didn’t move. I didn’t say anything but peeked around him to see if someone else was in front of him. I made eye contact with Knausgaard who was unsure of what was going on. Maybe he was just standing there, with no interest in meeting the author. Just a normal shopper who happened to be browsing the shelves when the stampede of Knausgaardians took their seats and blocked his exit. I tapped him on the shoulder and realized that the man was blind. Apologizing, I told him it was his turn. He hadn’t known and stepped forward, touched Knausgaard’s sleeve to place him in location to himself and started talking to him.
I felt good about what I had done. The man seemed to be looking forward to meeting the author and had a lot to say to him. Others had cut in front of him, not bothering to wait for him to figure out what was going on, but I didn’t. I was polite and patient and fair. I helped this man meet someone he admired. If not for me, would he have known it was his turn? Would the conversation he was having now have ever taken place? My self-importance rose and swelled in my chest.
I immediately forgot about the man and his dog when they walked away for it was my turn. I looked into Knausgaard’s eyes and he looked into mine. There was no recognition. I shook his hand and he asked me my name as he took my books to sign. I smiled and told him, and then went into my planned story while he half-listened and inscribed on the title page ‘To Steven, with all my best!’ signed an indistinguishable Karl Ove Knausgaard.
I thanked him and took my books. He nodded with a smile and I could see the reflection of my face pass from his eyes, to be replaced by the woman’s behind me.
I walked out of the bookstore relieved because I had done it. I had met him and I was forgotten by him. Now that it was over, I understood that this was the way it was supposed to go. There was nothing fated to occur. I could go home and finish his books in peace, without his silhouette lingering in my peripherals. He was not an outline anymore, one that I could color in and dress up in my own clothes. He was a presence that took up space and interacted with mine. He more than the totality of his books on my shelf.
Mary Oliver Reading at the Bookstore
It’s Friday night! let’s all get together and read poetry to each other—there will be snax.
The cracker plate on top of John Singer Sargent monograph, the chip bowl fitting nicely between the Tolkien tower and Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, the water up against a pile of Capote, the figs next to the Beats, the wine leaning alone against Knausgaard, and we pick with our finger beaks from this laid table and feast, licking our fingers, wiping them on our pant leg sleeves, flipping through fresh and flexible Mary Oliver paperbacks—that is why we’re all here. Here to eat and chat and read out loud the poetry of Mary, who is someone to dig this Friday because she is New England and simple and someone who goes out and yells at nature in a very quiet way.
In other words, there’s not much separating us from Mary’s poetry. Her language is direct. Her images are familiar. Her emotion is shared. Pick up any of the many books of her poetry and scan the poems inside—it is not long before you pause and stay with one, rereading it, surprised by a metaphor, pleased by the sound of two words hitting each other like a perfect up-top hi-five between two perfect friends.
There’s also cake. There’s also a dog, Roscoe!, who goes unleashed and is graying at the whiskers and is open to be scratched on the haunch by strangers because what are strangers? Look deep into his black eyes as Bookstore Mark reads a dog poem from “Dog Songs” and it becomes very clear that the night’s twist is that Roscoe is Mary Oliver and symmetrically so, Mary Oliver is Roscoe.
Her voice erupts suddenly and pleasantly out of nowhere. Where is it coming from? The creek beds of our books? The crooks of the shelves? The line breaks? Our spines? Our very mouths? We all do a collective double take at Roscoe, hanging his tongue, half-expecting him to be saying things like “the soft animal of your body…” and “tell me about your despair…” and “the world offers itself to your imagination…” *snaps* and in conclusion, “…announcing your place in the family of things.”
More *snaps* Mary—we dig your sound.
It is becoming more and more clear as there are less and less chips in the bowl, that poetry is meant to be shared and read out loud.
The writer does the work of breaking ground alone; she is brave for it (though brave is not rewarding, it is not something a person ever feels), and once the work of words is done and set on the page, it is given up, released from the author’s wrists like chains, and meant to be passed around. It is meant to be said between sips of wine and cheese chews; in a space filled with other voices and other words. *snaps*
Mary Oliver Swan Dives Over The Edge...And It's March!
In Mary Oliver’s poem “Breakage,” her opening line is the narrator at the cusp of something. Not a figurative cliff, not a wit’s end--a simple edge: ‘I go down to the edge of the sea.’ That’s the poem’s start; it’s first line, first sentence, first thought, first image, first breath.
It is a line that quickly blends reader and narrator into one. The experience is shared. The use of first person is an obvious culprit of this, but there are others. It has a simple and hitch-less cadence, using nine, monosyllabic words--the line is not read, it is walked. And as soon as the reader has walked, the reader is stopped by the natural occurring period. It is not a hand yanking you back or a crude wall or a barbed-topped fence--it is one of the earth’s simple divisions--the line between land and water. Just as the narrator does not just walk from rocks into sea, the reader does not just walk through a period.
From our appointed perch, the narrator looks out on the scene alight with the morning: ‘the cups of the whelk,/ the broken cupboard of clams,/the opened, blue mussels,/ moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred,’
What is seen feels more like a junk yard then a clean sickle of white sand. It is all scraps. There is ‘nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered’ and ‘split.’ All of these we see and know in the morning light and our experience fills in a slight chill and glistening of salt and obsidian. The sound of waves flipping into the sand and rocks, frothing cold and blue-white, is heard in our ears like an echo.
This ‘edge of the sea’ is where things are revealed. The guts are spilled and oozing out and ‘all the moisture is gone.’ The water licks the rocks and then reels back, revealing the things that are half-in and half-out. What we get is a border where the contrast of two things is most stark, and standing there at that ’edge’ the narrator can look out and come to a certain realization.
Here the reader enters the mind of the narrator--we feel the thoughts build off each other:
‘It’s like a schoolhouse of little words/ thousands of words./ First you figure what each one means by itself,/ the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop/ full of moonlight./ Then, you begin, to read the whole story.’ And the poem is done.
What is interesting is that how Mary Oliver ends this poem is the opposite of how she starts it. This is not an edge and a stop, but a plunge. She deepens the mystery because knowing these things--these small words and atoms and organisms--is understanding that the ‘whole story’ will never be known. ‘You begin’ to read but that is all. The reader is walking again, but there is no period on the horizon.
This is the essential fact and guiding philosophy of Mary Oliver’s work. She goes into nature, listens and watches and explores and sits. She puts herself on the edges and borders of things. She looks out. She accurately names the creatures and plants that beat and bloom around her. Like Thoreau and Dillard, she sees the egret, the pink moccasin flowers, the pilot snake and calls it by name. She goes into the schoolhouse of words and uses them--the natural-occurring, simple words, the onomatopoeias, the wind vowels and bark consonants. She surrounds herself and the reader with simple descriptive truths. She speaks the language, she sees what she sees, she says what she means. What occurs while reading Oliver is often the thickening of the unknown. The reader is wrapped in the mystery and the paradox of wanting to know and never-knowing comes to fruition. We are only beginning to read the whole story.
The Manchester By the Book Book Bike Begins...
Stop. Do you hear that? That billowing cloud of sound amassing over the highway valleys and fastfood flats of 128 and Route 1...
Hit the brakes! Turn around! Burn some rubber! Spin your wheels, man! Chase that sound like a storm cuz, I’ll say it now and forevermore: That rising sound is the sound of Literature revving its engine…
Manchester By the Book has gone mobile. Literature has hit the streets in a BIG way.
The Manchester By the Book Book Bike, AKA “The Shark” (drop the ‘r’ if you’re feelin’ local), like a 3-winged Pegasus will be soaring over the many miles of commuter rail coast this summer, from Salem to Gloucester, pawning Holy Cargo like The ARK of the Covenant. Indiana Jones, man. Our books will melt your face off!
And here’s the scoop: it’s an industrial tricycle, dressed in black, blue, and white--a real looker! a beaut!--and outfitted with a kitchen cabinet on its bow. Open it up like Pandora’s-own and custom shelves unfold and bound books blossom, spilling out like fish guts--but in a good way.
“But howza she handle?” you ask.
“Like a dream?” someone adds, a virginal glint in their eye.
Well, if you dream of sea-rusted jalopies, aircraft carriers in city bay channels, and Mercedes Station Wagons in crowded parking lots then…yeah, babe, it handles like a dream!
But the Shark doesn’t need speed. It doesn’t need flash like those two-wheelers popping wheelies in that reckless and uncouth way. The Shark is meant to lumber and groan as it bends around a street corner. It rides like you read, page by page, easy does it.
Post winter, the bike came shipped to us wrapped in 3 boxes--mere bones that were slowly pieced together on the store’s back porch: our own Frankenstein lab, or Daedalus workshop. And after afternoons of wrenched bolts and negotiating parts we plunged the thing into the parking lot bay, glass-splashed some champagne on the hull and deemed it road legal-- “all ready to go, boss!”
On that first trip--down to Cap n Dusty’s for shakes!-- I imagined Columbus and Magellan and Cortez leaving their Spanish ports, sitting at the helm of their three-mast galleons. I just sat there pedaling and laughing, shaking my head: forget those conquistadors. This is the real Age of Exploration; this is the real Revolution! This Book Bike is a monster of innovation, an evolution of space-age technology, this is what bursts forth when atoms collide! This things got wheels, man--always turning!
To sum it all up, the maiden voyage swelled with promise. Me and the Bossman toasted our frappes to the minted machine: its future surely sweet like the open sea.
Bankrupt John: A Slow Death in his Valley
People know who John Steinbeck is—at least they acknowledge the name as familiar, snapping their fingers with one eye soured and the other belly-up trying to search the bookcase of their brain:
“What book did he write again?”
And people remember fondly the high school assignment: Read “Of Mice and Men”— first met with a pregnant groan, but then relief when they picked up the book, felt its weight, and noted the final page number—less than 100 pages!
Skirting Steinbeck’s small classic is a high school rite of passage and remembered for little else.
But other than the dubious public school honors, surely Steinbeck has other medals to pin to his chest. The man had a long career, a successful one, and his relevance stretches far beyond the classroom bungalows of America.
To name a few: The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 and he took home the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. Hinted at before, Of Mice and Men is one of the top ten required reading books in American high schools. The author’s name is certainly known, recognized, and of good saxon stock… And when the monuments of 20th Century American Literature sound off: “Hemingway. Faulkner. Salinger…” is not Steinbeck next—carved into rock on Mt. Rushmore as one of the aforementioned four.
But (and there is always a but with him) he’d be in Teddy Roosevelt’s boat, sunken in the back of the rock. And when one could afford a thought or two they’d wonder why he was really up there at all: what did he ever do? Is it just because there was no one else?
In fact, when the Nobel Prize archives were opened in 2012 it was revealed that Steinbeck’s win was the result of a compromise: “the best of a bad lot” wrote The Guardian, with critics of the time saying he was “a limited talent” with his best work aged ten years at least, harking back to 1952’s East of Eden. Even Steinbeck took the Nobel Prize as a shock, believing it was an honor he didn’t deserve. Along with all that Steinbeck has lived and died with constant criticism from the eastern literary elite, bashing him for writing comedies, young adult novels, being sentimental, political, and above all else, Californian.
Whether or not you think his critics are sound in judgement, it is more so the fact that the debate even exists that proves a point about Steinbeck. The man plays second fiddle, sits in third chair, the fourth starter in the rotation; his Beatles counterpart would be Ringo—and how we love Ringo—but that’s just it!
We think Steinbeck is a good writer, just not great. We see him as valuable, definitely, but maybe operating on too small a level. We love him, but we’re not serious about him. He’s worth mentioning, certainly, but there’s always a bigger name to move on to.
Why do we never linger on John Steinbeck?
Is it because he was always just a writer? His name certainly lacked legend. It never grew beyond the title page of his books. The John Steinbeck story was no story at all—unlike a lot of his contemporaries who’s presence brooded behind each printed word. The strangeness of Salinger—his ominous brow lingering over his sore eyes—always influenced the reading of The Catcher in the Rye; and the grinding teeth of Hemingway always sounded off in the blunt prose of A Farewell to Arms.
Though he had his fair share of exploits: reporting in World War Two Europe and Cold War Russia, studying marine life of Pacific waters off the coast of South America, and driving around America in a camper, Steinbeck’s muscles did not flex in his stories, nor did his mustache bristle.
And maybe part of that is Steinbeck never fought in a war. Too young for combat in World War One and too old for World War Two, he lived out his childhood to completion: graduating high school, attending Stanford, moving to New York City then back to the Monterey Peninsula in California where he lived uninterrupted, fishing from his boat, tending to his garden, and writing.There was no great tragedy, nor violence or flair in his life. There are no photos of him grinning over a beast of Africa, a hat jaunted on his head with a rifle displayed erect at his side.
The bravado and vaulted masculinity was just not there when it came to Steinbeck. He remained grounded and his stories’ characters were no different.
The author’s usual suspects are hardly the John Waynes of literature carousing straddle-legged the pages of novels. No one dies on a Spanish hill in Steinbeck’s canon. The drunk paisanos of Tortilla Flat and Mack and the Boys slogging about Cannery Row, drunk again and amounting to nothing more than a bag o’ frogs and a birthday party gone south. Even the “hero” of Tom Joad in the critically acclaimed The Grapes of Wrath exited the novel with his head under ground being smuggled food by his mother for fear of being caught by the authorities.
His characters are helpless things that the reader can despise or pity, but will never boast of. Especially when their fruition was in the midst of modernity, war, and the grand narrative scheme, the average American enjoyed a Lennie but needed Frederic Henry.
Even in the Salinas Valley, Steinbeck’s childhood home and stage for much of his human drama, the relationship between author and place is strained.
The National Steinbeck Center that opened 16 years ago has gone bankrupt sitting at the heel of Salinas’ Main Street, the same block that Cathy (or Kate) Ames walks in East of Eden. The museum always struggled for money and support, and its eventual financial collapse is telling about his own worth
The whole valley that descends from the county seat still operates in a tiered system of owner and laborer with the gap in wealth still wide, a narrative Steinbeck explored constantly in his work. You can see this variance clearly in the way towns are divided: East Salinas, Alisal, with its mostly Hispanic population, while on the other side of the freeway lives the owning class. And driving up and down Highway 101 through King City, Soledad, and Greenfield, there are faded school buses hanging off the side of the road with rows of workers nearby, headless and bent in the fields of artichoke, spinach, and lettuce—all migrant laborers harvesting an endless crop.
This drama fascinated Steinbeck and he was not bashful in favoring the laborer, choosing their struggle as the great human story, evident in works like In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. But this social consciousness, this seemingly leftist lean, drove, and continues to drive, many wealthy Salinas Valley readers away. Dismissing his work as another out-of-date book—a school assignment—refusing to recognize it as a commentary on still present societal concerns; refusing to look out their window and examine the persecuted history of the worker in California.
With this in mind, it is not hard to imagine the author a character in his work. “Bankrupt John” we’ll call him, and he is the lowest of the low: drunk and flea ridden, hunting rabbits in the foothills of the Santa Lucia, sleeping in dry river beds and crooked oaks, preaching and drinking and throwing fists—it will be a slow death for Bankrupt John in his valley.
But his life will be amongst people and it will always be told as a story.
With our stools flush, good and close, Joe (a name I learned later) leaned in, and with a voice like crumpled paper he started a conversation:
“The dogs aun’t bad, huh?”
I looked down at the two drugstore hot dogs crested on a paper plate in front of me: vapid on processed, New England-style buns, mustard and relish present, but uninvolved.
“Yeah, they’re okay.”
His winter jacket hiked slightly, suggesting a shrug, “Theyah quartah anyway, so who cahes” dropping letters as if a hole was burned in his tongue.
I nodded, embarrassed.
Admittedly, I cared greatly about the hot dogs. I walked the streets of downtown Newburyport shunning numerous quality dinner options for the novelty of paying 25 cents for a meal. I cursed the governor at the register, grumbling at the obligatory state tax adding two cents to each dog— 27 cents! How crass. How odd.
So I dropped another 1.49 on a bag of chips and a buck for Dr Pepper, feeling sufficiently suckered.
A crowd of high schoolers joked and punched each others crotches amongst the aisles, laughing, eyeing me, uncool with my hands full, alone, a duck amongst swan. I was pushed deeper into the store, to an empty stool at a counter littered with Keno ballots, lottery stubs, and suicide prevention pamphlets—where the locals brood. I sat feeling courageous.
Joe toyed with a ring of keys in his hands, checked his watch, and glanced up at the television flashing numbers and updates of the night’s lottery winners. I hesitated towards my second hot dog. Two minutes until the next Keno game.
He introduced himself (obviously “Joe.”)
Joe leaned in again: “Ya know the Ford Dealahship?”
I nodded—mouth full, kind of lying. There are many—Ipswich, Danvers, others—but I didn’t ask for clarification, obviously this was “Joe’s Counter” and only a jester would speak out of turn.
“My uncle worked at the dealahship and my dad would take me in to get lunch with him sometimes. One time, we went in and met with my uncle and my cousin and went to lunch at a dinah. My dad ordahs two hot dogs—for the both of us—and my uncle ordahs just one hot dog. I remembah thinking the one he orderah is for my cousin and just wasn’t gonna eat, try to be healthy or something. I remembah thinking this. But when the dogs came out he took the dog and split it down the middle with a knife, eating one half and giving the othah to my cousin. Can you believe that? Wouldn’t even buy two hot dogs— cheap bastuhd. Won’t even buy a whole dog fuh his kid. Cheap bastuhd.”
I gave up two chuckles, out of respect for the local legend and the practised way Joe told it. I asked: “How much was the hot dog?” with a rush of wind flicking the top of my head.
Joe’s head turned towards the television, the Keno numbers starting to roll. “I don’t know, maybe a buck fifty.”
More than a quarter I thought to myself, unable to tame my penny-pinching; unable to grasp the lesson dissolved in Joe’s fable.
An ill-shaved man counted to himself at the opposite end of the counter, pinching a coin between forefinger and thumb, scratching at a ticket. Soon as he finished with one card he moved on to the next, continuing his neck-bent rubbing, as if trying to coax a flame. At least he’d drop a buck on something.
What was worse a gambler or a miser?
My thoughts turned biblical, thinking of the woman in the old story of Solomon, lying about being the mother of the child in question, advocating the wise king cut the boy in half so that neither woman would get the child, therefore proving that the son did not belong to her.
The lying woman is jealous, a miser, unwilling to lose anything. And the true mother: a gambler, willing to lose everything…
Joe’s story ended up being a modern twist: tragic and unrequited. The hot dog inevitably split.
Ten minutes to six and Joe called it quits, sliding off his stool and talking about a cash pot that’s been building steadily for some time now at the Elk Club. “10,000 dollahs and 5 bucks to play. Not bad,” he said.
I left to go to a free poetry reading at St. Paul’s Church down the road.
The event was shorter than I had hoped and Robert Pinsky kind of mumbled into the microphone—a bad, Episcopalian sound system anyway—and some of his words were lost and the lines became disjointed.
I left town wanting my money back.
Copyright 2014 Manchester By the Book. All rights reserved.