Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What Am I Reading?

Travels With Charley: In Search of America (1962)
by John Steinbeck

I'm just about finished with this one. First time I read this was back in my early twenties, while working in a little local bookstore, The Book Loft

in my hometown of Fernandina Beach, Florida.

At the time, it sparked in me such a strong yearning to see America that it was almost like a sickness, a mania, a fever. But I was young, and as much as I wanted to 'escape' my childhood town-cum-prison, I was, in many ways, still a scared kid. I was in a disintegrating relationship with a young woman who was more like a woman-child than a mature person, and I was also very much financially dependent on that bookstore job. That was the year I bought my first new car, and so I was making car payments, and had had to move back in with my parents for a time after living with my best friend from grade school-to-high school, Curt Courtenay. Our childhood friendship was falling into shambles as well; we'd outgrown one another in so many ways, but the biggest problem was that Curt was moving on, going to Florida Institute of Technology, and I was...well, I was too scared to move on with my life. I had convinced myself that I belonged in Fernandina Beach for the rest of my life.
Then I picked up Travels with Charley and Steinbeck's brutally honest and sometimes confused and frightened travelogue of his cross country journey with his aged poodle, Charley, lit a fire in my belly, a burning need to see the country of my birth.
Thanks to his book, I discovered what I knew deep down, even then. It was only a matter of time before I began to push against the boundaries of my home, a demarcation reinforced in too many ways by a fear of the unknown of what was out there, in that great, wide world, waiting for me.
Well, it took me a few more years before I finally 'escaped' Fernandina Beach; I made it eventually to Orlando, Florida. It was with a different woman in my life by then, one that would become my first wife, and between the inevitable attrition of years and the equally inevitable neglect on all our parts, I had lost most of my childhood friends at that point.
Now, here I am, forty years old, and I find that that fever, that mania, has never really died.
Of course, it's been tempered with a bit more maturity (one would hope) and whole lot less fear of what that great, wide world has waiting for me. I find that I still yearn to see that world--bedamned the dangers!
Over the intervening years, I have been lucky enough to see most of the states in our union; some in passing, some I've been able to settle in for a little bit to taste the air and feel the dirt between my toes, so to speak. During that time I've found that Steinbeck's natural dichotomy of fear of, and love for, his countrymen is something that has also come natural to me.
Back in '62 Steinbeck was seeing the great sweeping changes of the Civil Rights movement in the South coming to something like fruition, and unknowingly he stood at the cusp of that 'beautiful wave' which Hunter S. Thompson reminisces upon in his classic 60s examination, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS.
Many years have slipped away since Steinbeck went out to re-discover his America. But what he found, and speaks to in his book, is something in which we modern Americans can, and should, still find some solace and wisdom.
After reading this book, I've got that fever again. It's time to maybe gather together Kim, and our own little pug crew, time to plan for our own re-discovery of that great, wide world.

--Nickolas Cook

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