Travels with Charley drips with artifice; like Steinbeck as a whole, dismiss it as light or “merely” popular entertainment at your own risk. As he makes up funny stories about his funny little dog, there’s always something else just below the surface, as out of sight as a nuclear submarine in 1962, and just as little out of mind. For though he did drive around the USA and then record what happened, by his own admission he took few notes and “muled things over” a long time before writing anything. And, when standing at a ferry deck in New York, he speaks with a young man “with cornsilk hair and delphinium eyes” about a submarine they’re both staring out at, one has to wonder: Is it coincidence that this conversation happens at the spot where Whitman and Marti wrote these words? Is it coincidence that the book opens with these two latter-day Ishmaels staring out at the sea that seems to draw them to its edge? I’m not sure, but these conversations happen often enough that you start to feel something more than you can see, lurking just below the surface. And after all, these two men are not, as it happens, merely looking out at the sea, but gazing in a kind of muted anticipation and antipathy at a nuclear submarine poking its single-stalk eye into the air, out along its merry way of “keeping the world’s peace with this venom…armed with mass murder, our silly, only way of deterring mass murder.” The young man says of the submarine, “That’s the new one,” and relates how long it can stay below. He knows, of course, because “I‘m on them,” because he, like everyone else in a world waiting for nuclear annihilation, is “on them,” a little more literally, perhaps, but no less in the present tense. If they’re out there, we’re all on them together. But how do you live with such knowledge? How do you look forward when the certainty of a world-ending nuclear war looms so large? The word “future” occurs three times in their short conversation, and each time it’s preceded, interrupted, by a hyphen. You can’t say it without pausing, you see, without reflecting on whether there even is a future, gulping through the words like a virgin talking about sex.
Steinbeck, though, is not the kind of person who would seek to ride out the storm below the surface, or at least he wants to assert that he’s not. He’s willing to admit that it might be “his world now,” that “perhaps he understands things I will never learn,” but he says it grudgingly, and more importantly, remembers a time when one didn‘t need to anesthetize oneself against the omnipresent fear. The young man does not. “The nice thing about it,” he says, “is if there’s a storm you can submerge, and its quiet. Sleep like a baby and all hell busting loose up above…It‘s not bad, you know.”
Steinbeck wishes him a “good–future” and moves on. Only a page earlier, he’s told us that he’s gone on this journey because he found himself falling into a sweet trap, found himself trading his “violence for the promise of a small increase in life span,” found himself, the head of the house, becoming the youngest child. He is filled with horror: to go beneath the surface, to sleep like a baby, and to dream of an imaginary future, this is his greatest horror, for one who has “always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, ,or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled. chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as punishment…My wife married a man; I see no reason why she should inherit a baby…”
Birth and death. Steinbeck was dying when he wrote the book, or rather his heart was a ticking time bomb, and he had just been given the death sentence by his doctor. He died six years later. And perhaps the world he had lived in, a world of violence and adventure he looks back on in nostalgia, perhaps that’s also dying or dead. Perhaps it never existed. But when he sets off on a journey he didn’t know he’d return from, it wasn’t funny stories about crotchety New Englanders or cute little vignettes with his poodle that he wanted to talk about and think about, but birth and death, babies and submarines.