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.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Book #49 - The House of the Seven Gables (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Sometimes it's hard to start these blog posts. Whiskey can help, beer can help, martinis can help, but this time all of the above fails me for unknown reasons. If I were a younger man maybe I'd try some "shrooms" or "e" or whatever these crazy kids are taking these days, but that's never been my style and I'm too old to change now. Nope, when good old American booze fails me for inspiration then I'm pretty much fucked, and so are you dear reader, because you have to read this drivel. Anyway, inspiration or not, I've gotta give it a shot, because I have a blog to run here.

I just finished Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The House of the Seven Gables". This was one odd book. Not odd in a bad way (actually odd is never bad in my book), although parts of the book were a bit hard to get through. The writing could get very moody and impressionistic, and there were points where page after page would go by with nothing happening plot-wise. But that was OK because the moodiness of the writing would draw me in, at least for awhile. OK, at some points it got to be a little much, but hey, I'm a modern reader with internet access and cable television, so my attention span to moodiness is probably much shorter than a man living in Hawthorne's time, whose idea of a fast-paced evening would have been sitting in silence in an armchair for hours on end, poking at the fire once in awhile, and watching his wife knit a scarf.

The story concerns the Pyncheon family, a wealthy family that built and lives in a large drafty old house with seven gables, located in a small New England town (probably based on Salem, Massachusetts). The land the house was built on was previously owned by a small-time farmer named Matthew Maule. When Colonel Pyncheon decided he wanted Maule's land to build his house on, and when Maule stubbornly refused to sell, the Colonel had Maule accused of witchcraft, resulting in his execution by hanging. But on the gallows, Maule points to the Colonel, and says "God will give him blood to drink". After the Colonel takes over Maule's land and builds his seven-gabled house, he is found mysteriously dead in his easy chair on the night of his housewarming party, with blood in his throat. From there on in the family's fortunes are troubled...they loose a huge part of their wealth as a land grant they purchased from Native Americans gets taken from them in the north, and when one of the Pyncheon descendants asks one of the Maule descendants to help him find the deed to the lost land, the Maule man puts the Pyncheon daughter, Alice, into a hypnotic trance, which allows him to control her at will. This inadvertantly causes her death, much to Maule's dismay, but nonetheless, the curse against the Pyncheons seems to go on. And we learn other Pyncheons over the years die mysteriously, with blood gurgling in their throats.

The bulk of the novel takes place about 200 years after Colonel Pyncheon's death, when the house of seven gables is inhabited solely by Hepzibah Pyncheon. Now there's an old-timey name for you! That's actually one of the cool things about this book...there are flashbacks in the book that take place 200 years earlier, and yet nowadays the whole book is about 150 years old. It makes the events and descriptions in the book seem like they are from the distant though the whole story is musty and distant, which adds to the general moodiness and creepiness and sense of decay in the novel. And that's a good thing.

Anyway, where was I...oh yes, at the book's start Hepzibah lives alone in the house except for a lodger who has an apartment in a remote corner of the house. Then a distant cousin comes to visit, Phoebe, who is an innocent young girl from the country, and one of the few Pyncheon descendants still remaining. Phoebe immediately brightens up the musty dark old house, and helps out Hepzibah with the general store she's opened in part of the house, because while Hepzibah would prefer to remain a hermit, she is almost out of money. Soon Hepizbah's brother Clifford comes to join them. Clifford, we slowly learn, is just out of prison, having been sent away years ago for murder. In jail he has pretty much lost his mind, and is now very much out of it. But Hepzibah loves him dearly, and Phoebe helps to take care of him.

Complications ensue...well, sort of. And they ensue slowly, because that's the way this novel flows. There's an evil relative, Judge Pyncheon, who wants information from Clifford. We eventually learn just exactly how evil Judge Pyncheon really is, and it's pretty evil. It turns out that Clifford and not the Judge was supposed to inherit the family fortune, and that he had Clifford framed for the murder of an Uncle who actually died from the family curse. And then there's the mysterious lodger, who is a dauggereotypist, and who we eventually learn is a descendent of the Maule family. I won't say what happens to all these characters at the novel's end, since I don't want to completely spoil things, except that the novel has a surprisingly upbeat ending for such a moody and meditative book. That upbeatness really took me by surprise actually, since it was quite unexpected.

One of the things Hawthorne seems to be saying in this book, at least according to this half-senile middle-aged white guy, is that immoral deeds done by family members get passed down to haunt succeeding generations. It's almost Darwinian; bad traits get passed down to screw up the offspring, although in this case the traits are evil deeds and not inherited random mutations. Still, it's a bit of a weird concept...that the sins of the father will forever taint his descendants. At least until the end of the novel, where all pretty much seems to be resolved.

And it's also interesting that while Maule casts this curse on the Pyncheon family, and they seem to suffer under it, there also are non-supernatural ways of explaining the curse and its effects. The mysterious bloody deaths of the Pyncheons could be a hereditary condition in the family, like apoplexy or something like that, that Maule recognized. And the Maule family has seemed to have inherited a propensity to be able to hypnotize people, which while seemingly supernatural today, may have not seemed so otherworldly in Hawthorne's day, when Mesmerism was in vogue. The book is a supernatural story with a rational explanation behind it. Which is pretty refreshing, actually, when compared with the current outpouring of vampire and supernatural movies, books, and shows. In any case, "The House of the Seven Gables" may seem strange and supernatural at times and a bit gothic, but the slow, brooding pace of it, while perhaps difficult for the modern reader to get used to, really pays off if one sticks to it and listens to the story Hawthorne tells.