Sunday, November 27, 2011

Book #50 - Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)

It's a beer night tonight, in this case Humming Ale made by my local Anchor Steam Brewery here in San Francisco. It's a nice ale, with a bold strong taste, and since it's made locally it fits in with this book, which takes place within a couple of hundred miles of here, right in the Great State of California, in what is often referred to as "Steinbeck Country". How many other authors can you name that have a geographical region that is named for themselves? I mean, Dickens had England and Dumas had France, but no one refers to Great Britain as "Dickens Country" or France as "Dumas Country". So what am I getting at? That John Steinbeck was a badass, and one of my homies, so back off motherfucker.

By the way, I love using the word "motherfucker" when discussing the great literature treasures of western civilization.

Anyway, I just finished John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" which took me all of two days because it's a short novel...probably the shortest on my list. It was a quick read, and a powerful story, although I could tell after reading the first page or two that things were going to end very, very badly, and I certainly was correct in that assumption. The story concerns two migrant ranch workers living in California during the Great Depression. George is a crafty, wiry, and small man, and his sidekick Lennie is a huge man of great physical strength, but who is mentally handicapped. He's not bright at all, and he loves to pet soft things, like puppies and rabbits and mice. He doesn't care if they're alive or dead, which is for the best since he doesn't know his own strength and usually ends up killing whatever he is petting. In fact when the story opens, Lennie is petting a dead mouse that he keeps in his pocket. At the opening, George and Lennie are on their way to a new ranch near Soledad, California in the Central Valley. They had to leave their last job in Weed when Lennie petted a woman's dress because it was soft, and when she started to get mad he got scared and wouldn't let go, so naturally everyone assumed he was trying to rape her. Which he wasn't, because he wouldn't intentionally hurt anyone, he just wanted to pet her soft dress. This is how it goes with Lennie.

George and Lennie have a dream of saving up enough money to buy a small farm and live off the land. This would also give Lennie the chance to raise rabbits to help satisfy his urge to pet soft things. Lennie constantly asks George to tell and retell the story of how they will live on this farm, and it's clearly a powerful dream for both of them.

Anyway, at their new job there are two threats. One is the boss's son, Curly, who is a former prizefighter, and a very mean and belligerent man. The other is Curly's wife, who interestingly is never given a name in the novel. Curly's wife is young and beautiful, and she's also bored and lonely living on the ranch, and so she endlessly flirts (and maybe does more) with the ranch hands. George's goal is to keep Lennie away from any troublesome situations, because he knows Lennie cannot control his strength. We meet other characters too. Candy is an old one-armed ranch hand, who has to endured his dog being shot because he is old and useless. When Candy hears George telling the story to Lennie of how they will get their land and farm it, Candy tells them he wants in too, and offers his entire life savings if it will help them buy a place. It will help, in fact, and the dream seemingly moves closer to reality. We also meet Crooks, the crippled black ranch hand who is befriended by Lennie (since he's the only one to not understand that you shouldn't go into the black man's sleeping quarters to hang out). Crooks at first scoffs at Lennie's land-owning dreams, but soon he too is caught up in the dream and is asking if he can come work on their farm when they get it.

But of course, trouble does ensue. Lennie is teased by Curly who wants to draw him into a fight. When he does, Lennie crushes Curly's hand, not so much because he wants to harm him, but because when he gets scared he can't let go of things, like Curly's hand. And then Curly's wife comes in to talk to Lennie in the barn as he's petting a dead puppy (sigh...yes Lennie accidently killed the puppy). When she tells Lennie he can pet her hair he does so, and then when she tells him to let go he gets scared, and when she starts to scream he shakes her and accidently breaks her neck. This is not good for Lennie. Anyway, when she's found everyone knows Lennie is the one who killed her, so the ranch hands set out to look for Lennie and lynch him. Fortunately George finds him first, and as he once more tells Lennie the story of the farm they will have, he puts a bullet through the back of Lennie's head, so that Lennie won't have to suffer. Now that's friendship. Yep, a happy story.

There was something I thought about when I read this story, aside from pondering what I would be drinking as I wrote my blog entry. Oh crap, which reminds me, my beer glass is empty. Hold on a second. Ahhh, OK, I switched from beer to an ice old nightcap of Limoncello. I dunno why, I just felt like something sweet, and actually it's tasting really good after that beer. I'll have to remember this pairing.

Crap, where was I? Oh yeah...what I really noticed about the story was how everyone in the book is lonely. I mean, really lonely and isolated. George and Lennie are the only ones who have someone else they can lean on, but we all know how that turns out for them. The crippled misfits, Candy and Crooks, are lonely too, and this is probably why they latch on so strongly to George and Lennie's dream of a farm, and want to be a part of it. But also Curly's wife is lonely, which is what sets everyone's downfall up to begin with because it causes her to end up talking to Lennie in the barn. The book is actually pretty bleak this one is really happy and everyone is lonely and only their dreams keep them looking to the future. Of course, this book was written during the depression, so that was probably the overall ethos at the time. But I think it also speaks to the human condition in general.

The friendship between George and Lennie was also interesting to ponder in light of when the story was written (i.e. the Great Depression years). There's something about their relationship that stuck me as an idealized, almost political version of male-male friendship. It political in almost a socialist way, as in "workers of the world unite". George and Lennie paired up because they could look out for each other (well, at least George could look out for Lennie), much as workers in labor unions look after each other. In 1934, Sinclair Lewis, a writer and socialist, won the Democratic nomination for governor of California, and communists were active in California during the 1930s. Radical (at least in today's views) notions of labor and the plight of the working man were rampant in California and seem to me to have infused themselves into Steinbeck's portrayal of George and Lennie. Yet the story is still read today, even in an America gone almost radically conservative. This speaks to Steinbeck's ability to transcend his time and place (the Great Depression in Steinbeck Country) and speak to universal themes that we all struggle with...loneliness, isolation, the futility of many of our dreams, and the sweet, sweet softness of a dead mouse.

1 comment:

Amy said...

I enjoy reading your posts and love your idea of reading the classics!