… that’s the number of posts according to the counter on the Dashboard. If only Malcolm had that number of committed daily readers. However, on with the motley.
August Kleinzahler in the London Review of Books
Kleinzahler is a Joisey boy, now removed to Hashbury, who was Basil Bunting’s pupil at UVic. His nice essay, in the rear-gunner Diary slot, takes him on a road trip, with musical accompaniment:
We are driving across America, making time: the fields of amaranth, grain elevators and silos of Kansas. Dead cows by the side of the road. Clouds shaped liked cows. A hawk glides over the Boone Creek baptist church. We’re crossing the Ozarks, listening to Woody Guthrie:
Hitler wrote to Lindy, said ‘Do your very worst,’
Lindy started an outfit that he called America First
In Washington, in Washington.
That’s Lindbergh, track six on This Land Is Your Land: The Asch Recordings, Vol 1, if anyone’s looking for it. Lindbergh, that all-American semi-fascist, cropped up in another of Malcolm’s reads this week: the not-too-good The Irregulars by Jennet Conant, which ought to be the account of how British Security Coordination ran its wartime propaganda campaigns in the USA.
Kleinzahler is opinionated, with some reason, about his music:
We are driving back from the Bonne Terre maximum security prison outside St Louis listening to Charlie Feathers … That’s Charlie Feathers, the Memphis musician. Sam Phillips at Sun Studio never knew quite what to do with Charlie; tried to steer him to the country end of things when he was more truly a rockabilly. Too bad for Charlie. Made for a difficult life, or more difficult than it should have been. He’s a better listen than Elvis or Johnny Cash or the rest of the white boys that came out of Sun.
[R]eading my poetry to the convicts at Bonne Terre gives Kleinzahler his pay-off anecdote:
At one point, in answer to a question — one of those questions you always get about how you go about writing — I said there were a lot of fragments of uncompleted poems orbiting around in my head at any given time, like space-garbage around the earth. When Professor D.J. introduced me he told the audience that I often ‘struck a sardonic tone’ in my poetry … At the end of the reading some of the killers approached me, each more timidly than the one before, to shake my hand and to thank me for the reading… One particularly large con, older than the others and more than a bit reticent, came up to me and leaned over: ‘You know what?’
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘I got a lot of that sardonic space garbage orbiting around in my head, too.’
Nice one. Haven’t we all?
Travels with Charley
Early in this extended essay, Kleinzahler refers to John Steinbeck’s book:
Fifty Septembers ago, John Steinbeck set out across America with his old standard poodle Charley as company. It was election season, as it was this September: Nixon-Kennedy. Steinbeck was 58 … and near the end of his life. One can feel it in his writing. He was a smoker and drinker and on his third marriage. He had had a couple of minor strokes. In two years he’d be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and six years after that he’d be dead. It’s long been fashionable for literary taste-makers to look down their noses at Steinbeck, and if you look for him in Louis Kronenberger’s otherwise exemplary Atlantic Brief Lives: A Biographical Companion to the Arts, you’ll be out of luck. Hard on the heels of Gertrude Stein comes Stendhal.
Kronenberger, for the record, published in 1971: Steinbeck’s reputation was then reaching its critical nadir. Irving Wallace’s thriller The Prize, with the central character of the alcoholic, skirt-chasing, blocked writer, just too neatly coincides with Steinbeck’s Nobel. More recently, Steinbeck’s stock has regained some of its value. Malcolm (who made a small living out of teaching Steinbeck) has never been phazed by those “literary taste-makers”. Time and again he returns to the novels, the short fictions, and the more factual stuff.
It’s some time since Malcolm rooted out Travels with Charley, so here was an excuse. Steinbeck’s journey started in my little ﬁshing place at Sag Harbor near the end of Long Island. His Rocinante is his purpose-built camper:
a tough, fast, comfortable vehicle, mounting a camper top—a little house with double bed, a four-burner stove, a heater, refrigerator and lights operating on butane, a chemical toilet, closet space, storage space, windows screened against insects—exactly what I wanted.
When Malcolm visited, it was (and apparently still is) on view at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.
Several others have retraced Steinbeck’s route, inevitably accompanied by a dog. Greg Zeigler blogged it last year. Kleinzahler cites Bill Barich, whose Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America looks at the country during the 2008 Presidential Campaign and is the more readable.
The end of Steinbeck’s quest is a profound disappointment, as it has to be:
I ﬁnd it difficult to write about my native place, northern California. It should be the easiest, because I knew that strip angled against the Pacific better than any place in the world. But I ﬁnd it not one thing but many — one printed over another until the whole thing blurs. What it is is warped with memory of what it was and that with what happened there to me, the whole bundle wracked until objectiveness is nigh impossible. This four-lane concrete highway slashed with speeding cars I remember as a narrow, twisting mountain road where the wood teams moved, drawn by steady mules. They signaled their coming with the high, sweet jangle of hame bells. This was a little little town, a general store under a tree and a blacksmith shop and a bench in front on which to sit and listen to the clang of hammer on anvil. Now little houses, each one like the next, particularly since they try to be different, spread for a mile in all directions. That was a woody hill with live oaks dark green against the parched grass where the coyotes sang on moonlit nights. The top is shaved off and a television relay station lunges at the sky and feeds a nervous picture to thousands of tiny houses clustered like aphids beside the roads.
Like Thomas Wolfe he recognises that You Can’t Go Home Again:
I remember Salinas, the town of my birth, when it proudly announced four thousand citizens. Now it is eighty thousand and leaping pell-mell on in a mathematical progression—a hundred thousand in three years and perhaps two hundred thousand in ten, with no end in sight. Even those people who joy in numbers and are impressed with bigness are beginning to worry, gradually becoming aware that there must be a saturation point and the progress may be a progression toward strangulation. And no solution has been found. You can’t forbid people to be born—at least not yet.
Steinbeck’s dystopia has only partly arrived: Salinas proudly announced a 2000 census figure over 151,000: the latest figure is 148,000 (and falling). Even he recognises that much of the change is, of a sort, positive:
I have done the Monterey Peninsula a disservice. It is a beautiful place, clean, well run, and progressive. The beaches are clean where once they festered with ﬁsh guts and ﬂies. The canneries which once put up a sickening stench are gone, their places ﬁlled with restaurants, antique shops, and the like. They ﬁsh for tourists now, not pilchards, and that species they are not likely to wipe out. And Carmel, begun by starveling writers and unwanted painters, is now a community of the well-to-do and the retired. If Carmel’s founders should return, they could not afford to live there, but it wouldn’t go that far. They would be instantly picked up as suspicious characters and deported over the city line.
Steinbeck also anticipated Malcolm’s own visits to Monterey and Cannery Row:
If an Englishman or a Frenchman or an Italian should travel my route, see what I saw, hear what I heard, their stored pictures would be not only different from mine but equally different from one another. If other Americans reading this account should feel it true, that agreement would only mean that we are alike in our Americanness.
Ummm … Malcolm is unsure about that. He suspects his “experience” of, for examples, the kitsch of Cannery Row, the quite-decent fish dinner on the pier at Monterey, the buffed-up glam of Carmel-by-the-Sea were more coloured by a bourgeois world-view than nationality. Perhaps, though, that is more the passage of fifty years in time and space.
Back with Kleinzahler
Malcolm has a lot of that sardonic space garbage orbiting around in his head, too. So this bit rattled his mental kaleidoscope:
Our Utah adventure was meant to conclude at the aptly named town of Blanding, population 3000 and something,in south-eastern Utah. On arriving there we learned that there was an all-terrain vehicle convention and there were no motel rooms for at least 120 miles.
The Redfellow expedition took place so long ago. Along with the Lady in his Life, there was the just qualified-driver daughter (who has now graduated, matured, married and has her own brood of three) and the Pert much-Younger Piece. No Charley.
One half of the Kleinzahler experience happened in Sturgis, South Dakota, when the passing whim to see Mount Rushmore coincided with the Sturgis Rally (right). That night was spent in the car-park of a motel at Sheridan, Wyoming.
The other half was booking, sight-unseen, into a motel at Blanding, en route between the proliferation of National Parks in southern Utah. What isn’t greatly publicised is the lack of alcohol in Mormon-run motels (and Utah motels strongly feature the Book of Mormon as bedside reading). The food that evening achieved the ultimate billing of inedibility.
It all meant the Redfellow continent undertook by day the same trip as Kleinzahler did by night:
There is nothing, or hardly anything, between Blanding and the Colorado town of Cortez but a great deal of particulate faecal matter in the air and some sort of bug, in plague-like abundance, attacking the windscreen.
That is not Malcolm’s recollection, which gives the space junk in his kaleidoscope another shake:
Then much of Route 491 was signed as Route 666. Before it even got a number and a black-top, this was the Navajo Trail: we are skirting the Navajolands here. The reservations are “dry”; but the verges of 666/491 were brown with rusted with rusted and discarded beer cans. The passing pistol-packin’ mama or papa seemed to have missed very few of the roadside markers.
It’s a dreary drive, and not a good place to have a break-down. What heavy eighteen-wheeler traffic there is, Eastbound and down, loaded up and truckin’, takes no prisoners.
After 50-odd miles of hardly-inspiring landscape, the next local breather is Cortez.
This, for Malcolm, is a good memory. Heading down Main Street, the Redfellows found a New Age bookstore (that was then … this is now). This provided coffee, whalesong on muzak, and a browse of the shelves. It could also have provided healing crystals, soo-ven-eers and miscellaneous specious gee-gaws. What it did provide, too, was David McCullough’s doorstopper of a biography of Harry Truman.
That tome is still in Malcolm’s attic. It was then a newly-published pristine hardback; so we are talking of fifteen years gone, and Malcolm feeling aged and depressed at the count. For much of the intervening decade-and-a-half, Malcolm’s motorcycle key hung from a plastic tab, the complementary advertising gift from that morning’s stop. Therein, too, lies a message: before Amazon there was a flourishing bookshop culture across the US, seemingly to a far greater degree than the UK. Even the small town (and while Cortez may be the county seat and the most populous city of Montezuma County, it still numbers fewer than 7,000 inhabitants) had its bookstore and some pretensions to literacy.
Some pretensions to literacy: just like Malcolm.