In Dubious Battle

Buy IN DUBIOUS BATTLE by John Steinbeck

Jim Nolan is young, unemployed, used to being poor, used to being kicked in the teeth, used to being used. He’s stuck in this cycle of despondency and nobody seems to care. But in Southern California in the mid 1930s he’s not the only one who feels that way. Jim’s late father was an active communist, and it’s towards the Party that Jim looks now. He starts by just typing up letters for them, helping with the organisation. They’re testing him out, checking he’s not one of the poor guys desperate enough to take police money to spy on them.

Jim is soon taken under the wing of a savvy older organiser called Mac. Mac is a charismatic leader who goes into areas where there is already unrest amongst workers to try and foment a strike. For a strike to work it needs to be keep within the law, and not just be an angry rabble venting their fury at their employers. It has to be directed in such a way as to attract sympathy from locals, rather than their contempt. Mac knows all the dirty tricks landowners and the police use, such as shutting down strikers’ camps on public hygiene grounds, or trying to provoke men into violence so that they can crack down hard, or sending in infiltrators to sow seeds of discontent and get the strikers fighting each other instead.

Jim and Mac see all this happen when they stir up a strike amongst apple pickers. The orchard owners have been slashing wages whilst dumping stock in the river to try and drive up prices. It doesn’t take much for the pickers to become picketers. But as the strike descends into violence and arson, and appears to be on the verge of running out of control, Jim realises Mac is only looking at the bigger picture. Mac’s long term plan means winning or losing this particular battle might not even matter, because both success and failure could attract more people to the communist cause.

Here John Steinbeck is trying out some of the themes and ideas he later went back to in The Grapes of Wrath. This is a more political novel than that one, but at the same time, his focus here is the people behind the politics. The message is just the same, however: people either get caught up in or left behind by events bigger than themselves. There’s a prototype for Tom Joad in Jim Nolan too. He’s idealistic enough to be swept up by Mac’s folksy rhetoric and simplified arguments, and passionate enough (or perhaps just desperate enough) to be inspired to direct action.

Steinbeck was variously accused of being a ‘Red’ or attacked for not being one, depending on who was doing the attacking, but this novel is a clear indication of his true – moderate – politics. His sympathies lie with working men and those who fight for their rights, but he is also acutely aware of how easy it is to pervert good intentions. Mac’s concern for the labourers may be entirely genuine, but he is so obsessed with the bigger picture that the individuals he corrals are, by his own analogy, not much above the level of dogs. Dogs accept their lot because they don’t know any better, after all, but nobody blames them for their lack of ambition.

So Steinbeck got attacked from both sides for this one – for being sympathetic towards strikers, but also for painting a portrait of the simmering labour movement that is less than rosy, let alone Red. It’s not as good a novel as The Grapes of Wrath, nor as monumental as Of Mice and Men, but In Dubious Battle deserves to be better known than it is.

The Wayward Bus

Summer is here so it’s time to read some more Steinbeck. The Wayward Bus is one of his lesser known novels, probably not helped by the fact that he was rather prolific throughout his career and this one came on the heels of the very popular Cannery Row. All the usual tropes of Steinbeck’s American realism are there, but he does something a little different with them this time.

At a remote Californian crossroads known as Rebel Corners stands a café run by Juan Chicoy and his wife Alice. From there Juan’s rickety old bus takes people to the nearest Greyhound stop, where they can head north towards Los Angeles or south into Mexico. Along with their handyman Kit (more commonly known as Pimples) and their waitress Norma, the Chicoys are the only permanent residents at Rebel Corners. Everyone else is transient.

After catching Alice going through her belongings, Norma decides to head to Los Angeles herself. On this bus journey is a stripper who dreams of being a star, travelling under a name she stole from a poster on the wall; a lonely travelling salesman trying to hawk novelties such as fake injured feet; and a family travelling to Mexico at the wife’s behest – she doesn’t really want to go to Mexico, she just wants to be able to tell people she has been.

It starts out like any other day for Juan Chicoy, driving the bus, but rain has flooded the river and made the bridge he needs to cross unsafe. Faced with the choice of going back the way they came, or heading off along a dirt road that may or may not get them where they want to go, Juan does something he has never done before.

It’s not just the people who are transient in this story. There’s a vaguely apocalyptic feel to the novel, as if half the characters on the wayward bus have nowhere really to go, and the other half will probably never get where they want to go anyway. Steinbeck’s not uncommon solemnity is again somewhat disguised by his playfulness with his characters and his lack of judgementalism towards the mores of real people. He might belabour the point, however, about the artificiality of most of the passengers, and how they are lying to themselves as well as everyone else.

There’s a cynicism to many of the characters (or at least their private thoughts) that I don’t remember being so apparent in many of Steinbeck’s other, more hopeful novels. There’s also a brazen lustfulness about them all that he glossed over before (and this was a man denounced as a pornographer for the final page of The Grapes of Wrath, remember). It might be appropriate to look at what was going on in Steinbeck’s life at the time of writing – they were the twilight days of his short-lived marriage to his second wife, who had given him children, but whose attentions had started to wander.

In the middle of the novel is a reference to the Trasks. It’s just there to add a bit of colour to this book, but of course, the Trasks are central characters in the big novel Steinbeck started writing not long after The Wayward Bus was published – East of Eden. I’m running out of Steinbeck novels to read now, but I’m leaving that one until last.

The Short Reign of Pippin IV

John Steinbeck has been a (if not the) favourite for about seven years now. After getting through almost half his fiction output in a short time I slowed down, wary that there would too soon come a time where I would have no more of his novels left to read. As it is, that can only be a year or two away now, even if I pace myself as I have been. His novels are ones I turn to in the summer. If it’s hard to be transported to northern California from a train in south Essex during summer, then I can only imagine how much harder it would be whilst wearing a coat and scarf. I haven’t read East of Eden yet. I’m leaving that one to last.

The Short Reign of Pippin IV was a product of the rather maligned New York period in Steinbeck’s life, which spanned from his writing of East of Eden until his death in 1968. Though this period saw him win the Nobel Prize, it wasn’t just those who had been a critic of his work from the beginning who saw it as an acknowledgement that his career was in its twilight days, with his best novels behind him. Transplanted from his native California he wrote novels that were often more experimental, but less rooted in everyday experience. When he wrote about his home state from the opposite seaboard (in Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row) it was a far rosier, more romantic view than he’d ever conjured up before. He would go on to end his career well out of favour with the literary establishment for his hawkish and somewhat naïve views on Vietnam. Perhaps had he been at the height of his career, those views would have gone unforgiven. That his best books were written decades before has meant the reputation that survived was that of the younger Steinbeck, whilst the older Steinbeck has generally been forgotten as much as his later books have been. As it is, though I have a hard copy of this one that has been on the shelf for years, it’s now out of print, and only available as an ebook.

Pippin IV begins this short satirical novel as plain Pippin Herestal, a middle aged middle class Parisian most likely to be found on the roof of the apartment building where he and his wife live, watching the stars through his telescope. Meanwhile 1950s France is in turmoil, the government collapses, and none of the parties can attract enough support to form a replacement. What France needs, her politicians decide, is another revolution. But to have another revolution, and one in which they will come out the other side of with power rather than death sentences, they first need someone to revolt against.

Cue the restoration of the monarchy. Every party in the French parliament gets behind the idea. The communists think a monarch will only accelerate the rise of a communist France. The socialists think a monarch will get rid of the communists. The Protestants think a monarch will get rid of the Catholics. And the aristocracy think a monarch will restore them to their rightful place. For once, the government of France is united. Their patsy king is quickly found – the last in the line of the Herestals. Unfortunately for them, the naïve Pippin believes he has real power, and he wants to use it to change France for the better. He’s got to go immediately, everyone decides, lest he do just that.

The novel’s not really about France, of course. Pippin’s ear is bent throughout by his prospective son in law, the scion of America’s most successful chicken farmer. Whilst he’s learning about what monarchy entails, Pippin also learns about American corporations, and how little difference there seems to be between the two. Steinbeck reserves some of his most barbed attacks for the wilfully impotent French radicals who have cynically realised that if they deliver what they promise then nobody would have a reason to vote for them anymore. He wrote the novel during the Democrat Party’s post-war malaise, when the party floundered without direction in the vacuum left behind by FDR’s death, and was yet to rediscover a new radicalism under JFK.

It’s an often clever, frequently funny novel, and as short as it is, doesn’t outstay its welcome. Everything Steinbeck has to say about corporatism and phoney liberalism is as relevant today as it was then, and will probably remain so for generations. But it’s not a novel I’d give someone to show them why I like Steinbeck so much. It’s a novel I’d tell them to leave until they’ve only got a few others left to read, just like me (alas).