Driving Around with a Poodle

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

I remembered loving this book when I first read it years ago, and I’ve just recently listened to it on audiobook – and it’s reminded me why I adored the book in the first place. Steinbeck’s tone is perfection: wryly funny, observant, non-judgmental. Several times I found myself just smiling as I listened. In fall 1960, Steinbeck began his journey in New England, driving his truck camper (which he dubbed Rocinante) and accompanied by his poodle Charley. His aim was to rediscover America and its people, while remaining anonymous himself. As he drove west, Steinbeck met ordinary, interesting people and talked with them – and mainly, listened to them. I was interested to hear that before the 1960 election, people seemed disengaged from politics and reluctant to express an opinion. (I thought that only happened after Watergate!) He talks with waitresses, a roving actor, a ranch hand, a cab driver, some very wealthy folks, and many others. Steinbeck deviates from his non-judgmental tone when he reaches the South and witnesses the horrifying spectacle of white women jeering a very young African-American girl as she enters her school. This is the scene I recalled most vividly from my first reading of the book; it’s unforgettably horrid. Overall, this book is a fascinating snapshot of America; it’s also my favorite book by Steinbeck.