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In America: Travels with John Steinbeck by Geert Mak, book review: A depiction of a country in decline, but was he looking in the right places?

The cultural life of America – film, music, literature – so important in founding and reasserting a national identity, is almost totally ignored by the author

Stuart Evers
Friday 21 November 2014 12:52 GMT
Dog days: John Steinbeck with Charley, Sag Harbor, 1962
Dog days: John Steinbeck with Charley, Sag Harbor, 1962 (Maurice Maurel/© Corbis)

Geert Mak’s retracing of John Steinbeck’s celebrated American journey, Travels with Charley, first appeared in the Netherlands in 2012 under the title Travels Without John: In Search of America.

In this fluid English translation by Liz Waters, the title has been transposed and refocused to In America: Travels with John Steinbeck. In purely commercial terms, one can see why the publisher would want to amplify the Steinbeck link, make him a part of the action. Yet this is a disparity that points to the problem at the heart of this book: it doesn’t quite know exactly what it wants to be.

Steinbeck, at least at first, had a clear idea of both what he was writing, and why he was writing it. In 1960, after an illness had forced him to take stock, he set off from Sag Harbour – with his dog, Charley – journeying through 33 of the 50 American states, to find the country he loved. It’s the last of Steinbeck’s major works, and one that begins in hope and macho endeavour, and ends in downbeat disappointment. It’s a journey riven with great writing, moments of drama and self-reflection; it is also hugely fictionalised, and most probably more imagination than fact.

In the opening pages of Travels, Steinbeck says: “When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from Here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going.” It’s an edict that crosses the mind several times while reading Mak’s account of his trip, exactly 50 years after Steinbeck. A “good and sufficient reason” doesn’t seem to manifest itself: there is no impetus, no real search in evidence. Mak and his wife – who speaks no more than four times in its 560 pages – set out in an air-conditioned Jeep, directed by a satnav, but for why is never really explained. One assumes from the Dutch title, this might be to look at how things have changed in a half century, or perhaps to check the veracity of Steinbeck’s book. Instead, all too often it feels more like a gentle vacation undertaken by genial pensioners with an encyclopaedic knowledge of American history.

The travelogue sections of the book are by far its weakest point – it’s telling that the most interesting writing is in the last hundred or so pages when Mak has pretty much given up on describing what is around him. Steinbeck conflated people, changed incidents, gave his road drama; Mak on the other hand can’t seem to get any traction with the America around him. The couple drive, eat in restaurants, sometimes they have conversations with unnamed people, all of whom say how awful everything now is in America.

If this is a search for America, Mak doesn’t seem to want to look in any of the right places. In looking at the demise of Main Street USA, he looks at the ghost towns left behind, not to the shopping malls that have replaced them. He talks in churches and restaurants, but not bars or at ballgames. The people he meets are described with perfunctory swishes and are then gone. The only young people he talks to haven’t discussed politics since 2008. It’s not a question of not taking the temperature of the nation; it’s that he’s not even packed the thermometer.

The biggest single omission in his search for America is the total lack of interest in the difference technology has made in the last decade or so on American life. The internet is mentioned just twice, according to the index, and Amazon just the once. Talking about the effect of Fox TV is all well and good, but the political quagmire of America is as fuelled by the rapidly widened freedom of expression the web has initiated. To be so dismissive of it seems breathtaking considering he stops off in Seattle, home to Amazon and Microsoft. But this is not the only omission. The cultural life of America – film, television, music, literature – so important in founding and reasserting a national identity, is almost totally ignored by Mak. It’s a reductive picture of a nation, and a rather insipid one at that.

But for all these caveats and frustrations, In America remains a hugely readable, informed and considered primer on American history. His heavy use of statistics to explain the modern world is counterbalanced by well-researched and entertaining reconstructions of everything from the Pilgrim Fathers and the Battle of the Little Big Horn to the Great Migration and the McCarthy witch-hunts. He is excellent on how these combined to create a national image, despite the country’s multifarious nature. Likewise, his explorations of the nation’s attitude to the environment, its spending on defence, attitude to taxation and the effects of lobbying are clear-eyed and surprisingly stark to European eyes.

The latter part of the book is more interested and concerned with this interplay between the past and the present, and as a consequence is far more persuasive than what has gone before. Mak is a shrewd observer of how power is wielded, and how it is withheld. It is, however, frustrating that it takes until page 482 for him to ask what Steinbeck would have made of the USA in 2010. Had this been more at the forefront of the early pages, the aimless and rather pointless pootling in the Jeep might have been avoided.

There have been several excellent books about modern America published in recent years – Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff and The Unwinding: Thirty Years of American Decline by George Packer especially – and in comparison In America seems somewhat lightweight, undernourished by its structure and partial coverage. Yet in its broad, idiosyncratic, often irritating but curiously readable way, In America provides more than just an armchair vacationer’s guide to both Steinbeck’s country and the USA of today.

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