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.