If I Had a Pony

The Long Valley
John Steinbeck
(The Grapes of Wrath & Other Writings, 1936-1941, a Library of America Volume)

Prompted by an errant remark, I returned after a long hiatus to the work of a writer who once totally captured my imagination. I’m happy to report that John Steinbeck still has the same effect on me he did long ago.

If you’ve been dropping by here for a while, you might find yourself wondering just how long long is. After all, there was that volume of reporting from the Vietnam War I encountered four or five years back. That, I submit, was different. Unplanned and not literature, which, to be fair, is my common operating mode.

No, this was conscious, even if the book has been patiently waiting on the shelf since November 2006 or so. Lest you think I’m playing tricks, tucked inside were a bookmark and bumper sticker from Moe’s, one of Berkeley’s great bookstores. Though I’ve been back to the People’s Republic since I was only able to indulge in a little book shopping on that first trip.

Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley, the setting for the tales collected in this volume,  lies about a hundred miles and an entire world away from Berkeley. This is a world of ranches and farms, folks just scraping by and folks doing quite well. A world where surfaces distract until reality inconveniently bursts forth. A world that’s violent and brutal and in which pretending otherwise is a great act of will. In short, it’s California.

You really can’t separate the people from the landscape in Cali-forn.

I’ve touched on the Golden State before so I needn’t go over old ground. But I will say the flip comment I mentioned above was offered in response to a California émigré’s remark concerning what you don’t hear about Cali before moving. More than I did a month ago, I believe anyone contemplating a move west needs to spend an awful lot of time with Steinbeck’s California. These dozen tales represent a good place to start.

Steinbeck, who I really do adore as a writer,  was a native of the Salinas Valley and that deep knowledge and love of place are apparent on every page. If Steinbeck’s characters, especially the men, are taciturn inward-turning types, his landscapes, flora and fauna offer an explosion of description. Ridges are “sharp backbones” that loom and protect. Flowers  are “ballet-skirted ladies.” Horses “hooves batter the ground” and nostrils flare “red as flame.”

I think it’s fair to say that Steinbeck drank deeply at the wells of Naturalism and Realism even as he went this own way. My early encounters with Steinbeck seem inseparable from a politics I think we both share, one less about movements and martyrs but deeply about people. I’m sure many another undergraduate, discovering the proletarian literature of the Great Depression had a similar reaction.

Those proletarians are here. In fact, they’re the focus of ‘The Raid,‘ a story about two organizers for what must be the CPUSA. The organization our heroes represent is never named but the command and control model reeks of Bolshevism. This pair, organizing in unwelcoming territory, faithfully follows orders even as they suspect the worst will descend on them. Dick the veteran of the pair, is the good soldier, reminding his neophyte companion of their orders and talking about what to expect. And though only the start of the raid is seen, the broken-bones incarcerated aftermath is all too clear.

Violence? Labor unrest? Murder? Here? Salinas, CA in the first third of the 20th century.

Violence and violent actions are found here in abundance. In ‘Flight‘, a young Chicano (to use a more contemporary term) on the cusp of manhood is suddenly catalpulted into his maturity. As he flees home, fearing for his life he becomes the quarry and the stakes are as high as can be.

Violence, in Steinbeck, need not arrive so obviously. ‘The White Quali’ is, seemingly, a tale of domesticity. Mary Teller has a vision of the perfect middle class life with a perfect garden–it, too, is envisioned in the greatest detail–and her husband, Harry, builds it for her. The cost, for Harry, is great, maybe more than he can bear, but he says nothing until he’s asked to protect the garden’s newest, most unique resident.

In these tales, the men follow a time-worn code that has faded over my lifetime. Their emotional lives are invisible excpet when expressing anger and anger could as easily be a substitute for what’s really being felt as the real thing.

Some people take the ‘cow’ in cowboy a bit too liteally.

No one is above this. ‘The Snake’ introduces us to a young biologist, Dr. Phillips, beginning work in his lab. A visitor, a young woman, arrives, offering to purchase a snake for a then-princely sum and proceeds to cajole hiim into feeding it a rat. She watches in rapt fascination–or is it more? the Hays code in print?  “It’s the most beautiful thing in the world, ” the young man said. His veins were throbbing. “It’s the most terrible thing in the world.” He tells himself if she opens her mouth he’ll be sick. This isn’t really about snakes, is it?

The centerpiece of this book is the elongated tale, and its follow-on–entitled ‘The Red Pony.’ Back in my library-working days you couldn’t even find The Long Valley. Instead, the paperback section contained multiple copies (the book was taught in our hgh school district) of The Red Pony and Other Stories. Publishers know how to make a sale.

In The Red Pony we meet the Triflin family: Father (Carl), Mrs. (she has no given name; there’s a feminist critique on erasure just waiting to be written here),  their boy, Jody and Billy Buck, the hired hand. Jody’s adolesence is approaching but he is noticably still a boy.

“It’s a dream/Only a dream/And it’s fading now”
Neil Young

The tale’s three parts focus on Jody’s rights of passage. Carl runs a tight ship–he likes to approve everything that happens on the ranch we’re told–and exhibits little emotion. He is forever stepping away or going silent, leaving his wife, son and even employee grasping to figure out what he isn’t saying. In this regard, Billy is the perfect foil, willing to display emotion and understanding  the price of facing it. “Turn your face away,” he instructs Jody at the tale’s climax.

Billy is not afraid to talk back to Carl either, asking him bluntly, at one point, if he, Carl, can’t imagine how Jody feels. Meanwhile, Jody spends the three parts of the tale encountering death, birth, acceptance and the pain of all of three.

In an earlier, harder age, particularly on a farm or ranch, such events marked one’s coming of age. Today’s purchased replacements–trips and parties and empty rituals–aren’t even substitutes, they’re simply sad distractions.

That’s why we have literature.




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