Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Learning from the masters series: Steinbeck's common man

John Steinbeck wrote for and about the guy next door, the man that works to pay the bills at the end of the month, for the poor cuss who hopes and hopes even when hope is lost, and loses and loses,  even when he wins.

Tortilla Flat
   He moved slowly and cautiously.  Now and then the chicken tried to double back, but always there was Pilon in the place it chose to go.  At last it disappeared into the pine forest, and Pilon sauntered after it.
   To the glory of his soul be it said that no cry of pain came from that thicket.  That chicken, which Pilon has prophesied might live painfully, died peacefully, or at least quietly.

Okay, so that was not Pilon's chicken and when he exited that thicket, he had already drawn and quartered that rooster, pocketed the parts and left all evidence of its identification behind.  He had a good day, a good meal and a good rule: chickens just wandering about homeless are best eaten fresh.

The Pearl
   His people had once been great makers of songs so that everything they saw or thought or did or heard became a song.  That was very long ago. The songs remained; Kino knew them, but no new songs were added.  That does not mean that there were no personal songs.  In Kino's head, there was a song now, clear and soft, and if he had been able to speak of it, he would have called it the song of the family.

Kino was in tune with the flow of his community, the sea nearby and the sleepy contentment of his family in the breaking morning.  And song was his element and his barometer.

Of Mice and Men
   "No. . . you tell it.  It ain't the same if I tell it. Go on . . . George.  How I get to tend the rabbits."
   "Well," said George, "we'll have a big vegetable patch and a rabbit hutch and chickens.  And when it rains in the winter, we'll just say hell with goin' to work, and we'll build up a fire in the stove and set around it an' listen to the rain comin' down on the roof--Nuts!"  He took out his pocket knife.  "I ain't got time for no more."  He drove his knife through the top of one of the bean cans, sawed out the top and passed the can to Lennie.

These two migrant workers were keeping the dream of a farm in the future, their own place where they could decide to work or not, stuffed deep in their empty pockets next to dead mice and nicked pocket knives.

And that was Steinbeck, the writer that lived first in the life then wrote the life of those who lived it.  His characters are drawn from people who live in and through hardship, but not the hardship that visits, leaves and sometime later after happy times have worn out their welcome is replaced with another difficult situation to manage through.  His characters are imbued in hardship; that is what life is.  It giveth and it taketh away, and mostly it taketh.

I was driving over a bridge in Bend, Oregon, and a man, layered in several shirts and jackets stepped blithely along the concrete margin that left a tight walkway along the fencing of the bridge.  I looked back (I wasn't the driver) and watched him until we were out of sight.  He wore a grin on his face, was obviously singing loud and joyfully and looked to have taken his last bath some weeks earlier.  He's a Steinbeck man, I remember thinking.  You know them when you see them.  It is hard not to be drawn in by their look of hope, their obvious plight, the sorrow you see coming which they don't seem to.  Steinbeck made me sensitive to them, made me hope and work not to be one, and surprised me when after researching my family tree, I found I was but one generation from them and at times only a paycheck or two ahead of them.

If you want to write about the common man in his glory, in his misery, read Steinbeck first.  Research your family tree.  Look around.  Then sit down and write about the fears that wake you up at night, only let them loose and see what damp place they will land it, dry up, flit about and land in the wet again.


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