Friday, February 12, 2010

Forgotten Books: Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck

I mentioned this book a couple of weeks ago in my post about Philipp Meyer’s novel AMERICAN RUST, and I realized then that I’d never read it. So I found a copy and remedied that situation.

There’s no point in going into the plot to any great extent. I imagine most of you have read OF MICE AND MEN, either in high school or college or on your own. (I still remember a librarian asking me, “Which class is this for?” when I checked out a copy of THE GREAT GATSBY. I told her it wasn’t for a class, I just wanted to read it. She looked surprised.)

But to get back to what I was saying, you know the story: George and Lennie, the rabbits, the tragic ending. I knew the story and I’d never read the book or seen any of the movie versions. So what is there to say about it?

Well, it’s really well-written. Steinbeck’s descriptions of the Salinas Valley are very effective, and the terse, hardboiled, realistic dialogue is great, conveying a lot more than just what’s said on the surface. The book is noir as all get-out, with a pervading sense of doom that makes you root for the characters even though you know things aren’t going to end well for them. In fact, the whole thing reminds me very much of a Gold Medal novel, with the farm setting, the restless, slutty wife, etc. Heck, this could almost be an Orrie Hitt novel!

Which leads me to say something that some of you may consider heretical: classic or not, I don’t think OF MICE AND MEN is any better than the best of, say, Charles Williams’ or Harry Whittington’s work. I’m not sure it’s even as good as some of their novels. It’s true that Steinbeck was trying to write literature and Williams and Whittington were writing to put food on the table and gasoline in the car. But here’s what it comes down to for me, and this is something I firmly believe.

They’re all words on paper.

Doesn’t matter who wrote them, doesn’t matter the intent, once they’re there, they’re just words on paper and the only thing that’s important is what they say. In this particular case, I think some of the Gold Medal writers said the same sort of thing that Steinbeck is saying in OF MICE AND MEN, only they did it better.

That said, I don’t want to disregard the quality of Steinbeck’s book. It’s regarded as a classic for a reason. It’s very, very good, very evocative, very suspenseful. Indeed, a great book, if for no other reason than the influence it had on popular culture. If by some chance you haven’t read it, you should. It’s short, fast, and mean, and reading it is a powerful experience. Highly recommended.


Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

Jim, you're quite right. That is a writing style found in a lot of classic pulp.

Tight prose, a storyline that people can relate to, a gift for painting pictures with words .. people can see what the author means though they never went near a mile of wherever - steinbeck's yokonapatawha, or elmore leonard's four corners area, or (in the longarm series) your brazos valley, lou cameron's denver and front range mining towns..).

Steinbeck had a gift that very few pulp authors (and those among the best) had .. a deep understanding of the human race and its frailties, and an empathy with his characters that shone through over and above everything else.

Oh - and not all that forgotten. Tex Avery (and later, Chuck Jones) had a long running tip o' the hat to the "Lenny and George" theme in their cartoons.

The first one being Tex Avery's Lonesome Lenny (note the words the big dumb mutt speaks, and the crushed mouse..).

(note the dog in the cage reading "A tree grows in podunk" .. another tip o'the hat to a favorite "forgotten book" - Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn". Haven't seen the Elia Kazan movie based on this though..)

Chuck Jones and various other of the looney tunes cartoonists used the lenny and george theme in other cartoons .. with Mel Blanc channeling Lon Chaney's Lenny for all he was worth. Wikipedia has a list ..

Richard Robinson said...

Good Choice, not as a forgotten books but as one that's lost respect. Sure, everybody (okay, maybe everybody of a certain age and up) has heard of it, and there was the film, which I don't think conveys the power of the book, but how many have read it?

At the time I read it, I didn't know what "noir" meant. I just took it at face value, and that's a lot of value. I was reading my way through Steinbeck and this was the third, I think, after Grapes of Wrath and Tortilla Flats. Next I read Cannery Row, and I liked them all.

Laurie said...

I agree with you on the pulp writing aspect, but it's not my favorite by far. Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, East of Eden...thanks, James. Now you've made we want to read them all over again.

George said...

John Steinbeck's volumes published by the Library of America contain timeless stories like OF MICE AND MEN. The LOA volumes go on sale on a regular basis and are great values.

Anonymous said...

Great post, James. I saw Of Mice and Men in Ankara, the lines spoken in Turkish, but it was easy to follow the story. I liked Cannery Row and even The Moon Is Down, a curious book on war. I think Mice and Men is worth re-reading.

Ed Lynskey

Evan Lewis said...

Don't think I ever read this, but it's impossible to encounter the title without thinking of Lon Chaney Jr, and then the Wolfman, and then whatever I've seen him in most recently, which happens to be an episode of Rawhide.

Rick said...

I prefer Sweet Thursday or travels with Charlie.

James Reasoner said...

I haven't read SWEET THURSDAY, but I like TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY a lot and wrote about it here a while back.

Graham Powell said...

The real forgotten Steinbeck book, to me, is THE PEARL. A great, terribly sad morality tale.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I've always enjoyed the play and movie more than the book. Not sure why.