In his late middle-age, John Steinbeck decides that after 25 years living in France, but writing about America, that he needs to return to take a trek through the landscape in a souped-up truck and a French poodle named Charley. Throughout the trip, he takes wandering notes, discusses the landscape, make-up and character of Americans.
He is never maligned or chagrined by what he finds, just fascinated, and where it feels like he should weigh in he doesn’t. He discusses America’s throw-away culture, our tendency toward banal and generic flattening of literature, language, food, and other kinds of things. He talks about his dog in very loving terms and indeed without Charley, this book wouldn’t work I don’t think. He doesn’t have a set path, has plenty of money, and isn’t particularly folksy. He has opinions about vitality and masculinity that are typical but not all that chauvinistic.
When he gets to New Orleans, his indifference starts to become vulgar. He goes to watch the “Cheerleaders” a group of white women who show up every day to hurl practiced invective at a small Black child who is integrating New Orleans public schools. He refuses to “take a side” as he puts it, and this is a moral failing as far as I am concerned. But, in terms of logging an opinion in the discourse of American race relations, putting into writing a refusal to take a stand, and trying to account for it, what he unwittingly does is describe a very familiar refusal of White America to say what’s definitely wrong. His position softens the more time he spends down there and finds out more, but once he’s gone, you can feel his relief of being away from it. For someone who wrote so elegantly on workers’ rights and other progressive causes, it’s a letdown.
But the book still functions as an effective catalog of what America is like, and other than the landscape it seems not much has changed, including the racial cowardice of Whites.