Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Joad Less Traveled (Reading: The Grapes of Wrath)

Here I am, untold years out of high school and finally getting around to reading The Grapes of Wrath. (Sorry for the pun in the title. I just couldn't resist.)

It's been high on my "to read" list for quite some time, but kept dropping to the perpetual back of the line like some Jean Claude Van Damme movie on my Netflix Queue everytime something new came along. And in case you think I'm a total jerk for comparing one of the Greatest Novels Ever Written to JCVD,  I should point out that my favorite book is East of Eden. (I don't know whether that absolves my sin or compounds it...)

I just started reading, so I don't have a lot of well-formed opinions on the novel yet -- other than as usual, Steinbeck does a wonderful job of evoking character through place. Few worlds are as vivid to me as Dust Bowl Oklahoma or Salinas, CA during the early 20th Century thanks to his masterful prose. I also appreciate the way Steinbeck warms up to a good story, and brings the reader in at the speed of a fierce summer afternoon and a down-home drawl. Which is to say -- he takes his time to unfold his tales. I think it's a style I have unconsciously emulated as I've explored my own worlds; though I'm aware it isn't a popular style these days. Slow beginnings are a tough inclination to fight. 

One of the other things that appeals to me about Grapes of Wrath is the promise of another great "Road Story." Some people love the hijinx of Capers. Others, the dark excitement of Thrillers. Or the War story. Me? I love being out on the Road.

It's a pretty basic conceit to take characters from their literal happy places and thrust them out into the wilderness, but it's one that resonates strongly with me. The mystery, danger, and opportunity that lurks upon the Dark Path Through the Wood promises untold excitement. The desolate road that snakes across the sun-baked desert strips the characters down to their core -- purifying them for the final test as surely as any sweat-lodge or baptism.

I moved around several times when I was growing up, and each move began with an equal measure of dread and excitement. Good-bye to old friends. What would the new place be like? Who would I meet? What would I see?

Summer vacations to the relatives always involved extended car trips as well. Plenty of time to gaze out the window and wonder "who lives in that house? what's the view like over that next mountain ridge? what's down that dark side-road we just drove past?"

It's a big topic, and one I'll explore more in other blogs, and probably even more so, in my fiction. In the meantime, though, here's a few Road Stories I've read and loved, and a few more I want to read. These are random samplings, and probably reveal some startling gaps in my literary education. Anyone have other suggestions?

Have Read:

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien (the ultimate fantasy road trip, even though the quest genre doesn't quite grab me like it used to)

Gentlemen of the Road: A Tale of Adventure, by Michael Chabon (a perfect homage to the old road/buddy genre with wonderful illustrations by Gary Gianni)

Moby Dick, By Herman Melville (Another classic. though the roads are a little wetter!)

Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart (the first of the wonderful chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox)

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler (haunting. it hit me in the gut.)

Have Yet to Read (some obvious ones here):

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (is that too obvious?)

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac (even more obvious)

The Stand, by Stephen King (I have a feeling I'd love this one)

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, by Jesse Bullington.  (newly released and sounds like it's right up my alley)

Bonus! (one of my favorite Road Pics):

Duel, directed by Steven Spielberg (and written by Richard Matheson. I musta watched this movie a million times growing up)

Woefully incomplete lists on all counts, but the Road goes ever, ever on...

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