Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath turned 75 this year. I remembered seeing a blurb on NPR’s website announcing that their book club would be trying to read it before its 75th birthday on April 14, and I contemplated trying to keep pace well enough to meet that goal with them. Unfortunately, I was still wrapping up The Secret History and knew that Grapes of Wrath just wasn’t the sort of book I could get through while juggling another novel. If I was going to read it, I’d have to do it on my own.

I’m not sure, exactly, how it slipped through the cracks of my literary education, but it remained off reading lists in high school and through all of college and more or less off my radar of interest until very recently.

It’s part of the canon. It’s a Pulitzer prize winner. It’s penned by a Nobel laureate. If that can’t help push a book onto your “to read” list, nothing can.

I think what surprised me the most about Wrath was just how much I loved it. And I loved it. The alternating chapters foreshadowing the miseries to come for the Joad family, the way it simultaneously reminded you that you were reading just one story out of many as well the story of many.

The only other book to really speak to me on the same level when it comes to understanding this part of American history is the significantly less famous Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer. In a way, it’s the perfect companion piece to Grapes of Wrath. While Wrath takes you through the Dust Bowl and the California migration, Waiting for Nothing shows you the cities and the flop houses and the lonely men riding the rails with nowhere to go.

But back to Steinbeck.

His language feels both sparse and rich, simplistic and complicated, and maybe it’s those nuances that made it such a slow, but satisfying read. Unlike East of Eden, which seemed to emotionally gut-punch me with every turn, Wrath was a more physically enjoyable read as well. For some reason with East of Eden the themes of love and death just really wrecked me to the point that I think that book took me four months to read. I loved it deeply in the end, but still. It was rough. Grapes of Wrath wasn’t so unsettling, but at the same time I think I loved it more.

What resonated the most strongly with me were Steinbeck’s chapters discussing the way a bank is more than a man. I think in this post-recession, post-bank-bailout world it’d be hard for those chapters not to resonate.

“The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”

You can see it in that one quote. The staying power of Grapes of Wrath is strong. It’s getting to the heart of something and that something really, truly does feel deeply American to me. It’s hard for me to put exactly what that is into words, though.

This is what I can say:

It’s been 80-some years since the Dust Bowl and the Depression and 75 years since the first publication of Grapes of Wrath and the book exists as an echo reminding us not just of where we’ve been, but where we are.

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Revolutionary Road

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I haven’t thought too much about Revolutionary Road since finishing it back in February, but not unintentionally. I can’t think about Revolutionary Road. Reading it nearly sent me into a full on emotional crisis. I was questioning everything about my life and whether I was happy or could be happy or was living up to my potential or my relationship’s potential or was maybe everything really just bullshit after all? Was I lying to myself and was I doing it as well as Richard Yates’s volatile couple, Frank and April?

The book–which was released in 1961 and loved by the likes of Tennessee Williams and Kurt Vonnegut before being more or less forgotten until the film adaptation in 2008–is a story about suburban malaise and the broken promises of the American Dream.

Frank and April Wheeler live in a tidy Connecticut suburb. Frank works in a boring, meaningless office job in the city. April stays at home, playing house and raising their two children. Neither of them are happy, and neither of them know what to do about it. The novel plays out in a series of explosive arguments between the two as they look for an escape from the white-picket prison they find themselves in.

As the book delved deeper into themes of disillusionment and identity, it became increasingly difficult to get through. I couldn’t bring myself to pick the book up for an entire weekend because it depressed me too much. I left it sitting untouched on my bedside table. I’d look at it, considering it, before shaking my head no. “No, not tonight,” I’d think, “I can’t. Maybe tomorrow.”

Finally, on a Monday morning I was able to pick it up again, reading it amid the bustle of my morning commute. At home that night, I raced through it to the end in a mad dash to see where the story would take me. Where would April and Frank end up? What would I see when I reached the end? Would it be myself?

Anyone who’s read the book will understand the frightening melodrama in that thought. No one wants to see themselves in that relationship. Even at the time I knew the thought was ridiculous, and it had less to do with the plot and more to do with the emotional rut I was in. But still. The fear was there.

In the book’s difficult final scenes, I somehow managed not to shed a tear. This is surprising for me because (as you’ll soon see if you keep reading these reviews) I’m a crier, and I always have been. My favorite books tend to tear me up inside, and I avoid reading them in public when I suspect a rough patch might be coming. But not with Revolutionary Road. There was just a sort of… deadness. Which I suppose is actually pretty fitting considering what the characters wrestle with. But it was also satisfying.

My only real complaint is that while the novel shifted perspective, I felt that entirely too much of it was focused on Frank instead of April. It wasn’t that I wanted less of Frank, but that I thought there should have been more of April. I wanted her side of the story to carry exactly equal weight to Frank’s. It was disappointing to see Frank so favored over her and I still have a hard time understanding why this was the case.

It’s certainly clear to me that neither Frank nor April is meant to be a villain. Neither one is right or wrong, they’re just two people grappling to come to terms with who they are in a marriage that’s constantly threatening to disintegrate. For that, I applaud Yates (especially when considering when this was written).

But it wasn’t quite enough. I think the disproportionate amount of focus on Frank’s inner dialogue runs the risk of having more readers identify with him and vilify April. And that is something I have a major problem with.

But ultimately, I loved this book. It hit the sweet spot for me in my reading preferences: realistic, dramatic literary fiction. Yates’s use of language is lovely, and for however flawed the characters were, I empathized with them. It might frighten me to compare myself or my relationship to one so dysfunctional, but I think it’s only human to understand what it’s like to compare reality with your image of what you thought your life would be or what it was expected to be. We all have to deal with such confrontations eventually; we’re just not all quite so doomed to shatter once we do.

[updated from original posting on 3/25/14]