Saturday, July 25, 2009

Books: East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

Having read The Pearl in grade school and The Grapes of Wrath in high school, both for class, I long ago dismissed Steinbeck as a plodding clod, a writer of flaccid fables, elementary and dull both formally and in content. When, last summer, I met a mid-American man who also threatened to be a plodding clod, a naïve imbiber of our country’s particular brand of moral and mystical pap, who praised Steinbeck, I would have dismissed him as summarily, except that his weedy, upright, je nais se quoi kept me ensconced in his bedroom for a time (where I might still be, if he hadn’t kicked me out). There, waiting for him one night, I pulled down the thick East of Eden to pass the time.

Fifteen years ago, a fleeting, pre-teen fascination with James Dean had inspired me to rent the VHS for my parents’ thirteen-inch television. Whether I fell asleep from the lateness of the hour, a lack of acclimation to the monochrome of the black-and-white scenes, or plain intellectual immaturity, I’m not sure, but I don’t remember even the opening scenes of the movie any more than I remember those of Giant, which I rented and slept through around the same time.

And so I came to East of Eden fairly fresh; I read the prologue-like geography of the opening chapters, reacquainting myself with the vintage Steinbeck I’d expected to find, whose dusty plains and alternately dry and swelling riverbeds set up the character and fate of his protagonists long before they are even born.

Then that man came home and the book was laid aside. Soon thereafter, I was excised from his life and his bookcase, and East of Eden was added to the very short list of books I’ve started and never finished. A year later, late summer again, another copy fell into my hands again, right before a trip abroad. If one is at all dogged by the sense of literary responsibility, gong abroad, one should always take a big, serious, uninspiring book along, because the confined spaces and measured durations of planes and trains focus the will in an unrivaled way. This is how I ended up on the beach in Costa Rica once with the leather-bound, gilt-edged War and Peace, and how I found myself this summer in front of the clear swimming pool of a Tuscan villa, my eyes focused not on the distant purple hillsides, but the black ink and browned pages of this old, fat paperback.

I would have to revisit The Pearl and/or The Grapes to determine whether the new found literary maturity in East of Eden belongs to writer or reader. Had I missed something before, too young, the way I had watching the rolling, grainy, ten-inch tall James Dean? Or is East of Eden simply an unexpected masterpiece, limpid and true, unpretentiously incisive, clear-eyed and lean-muscled and unabashedly honest (a bit like that plodding American man, but let’s not dwell on loss).

Steinbeck sets us up for a retelling of Cain & Abel’s parable, recast with perhaps inept farmers first in the East and then in the fickly-fertile California central valley, outside the newborn town of Salinas. To tell the story properly, though, he needs two generations of brothers, the first apocryphally named Charles and Adam, the second, Adam’s (or are they Charles’?) twin sons, Caleb and Aron. The uncertain provenance of the second set of boys is due to the fact that their mother, like most Biblical women, is unadulterated and unexplained evil. A runaway who has murdered both her parents and established a small nest egg by ruining a local married man by erotic devices, she finds herself beaten and on the brink of death when Good Samaritan Adam finds her, takes her in, and marries her. Revolted by but reliant upon his kindness, she keeps him from her bed during her recuperation, instead insinuating herself into that of Charles.

Because Adam and Charles had never gotten on, one night Charles going so far as to beat Adam near to death when their father preferred his birthday gift of a mongrel puppy to Charles’ of an expensive hunting knife, Adam decides to move clear across the country with his new wife. Their tyrannical father has passed, leaving behind a surprise fortune, the means by which he accumulated it mysterious and likely illegal. Adam takes his half, leaving the dark and grunting Charles to man the old farm out East alone. Settled on a hopeful ranch outside Salinas, Adam primes the expensive estate for his new family, but as soon as his sullen wife has spat out her twins, she refuses them, her husband, and her new home. Shooting her husband in the shoulder to prevent him from keeping her there against her will, she leaves him and the baby boys behind, not to be heard from for quite awhile.

Meanwhile, the boys are raised with industrious silence by Adam’s Chinese housekeeper, Lee. Adam is an empty shell of a man, a silent figurehead deaf even to the forceful shouts of his only friend, neighboring farmer, blacksmith, salt-of-the-earth intellectual, and patriarch of a brood of ten, Sam Hamilton. It is Hamilton who befriends Lee and convinces him to stop speaking the pidgin tongue of the Chinese lackey, and it is Hamilton who insists that Adam give names to his twin boys, an entire year after they’re born. It’s at that fateful moment that they discern a dark, Charles-like brood to one of them—now Caleb, and a bright, clear-eyed smile of the other—now Aron.

Their names their fate, the boys grow up together, close but sometimes squabbling, Aron more trusting, Caleb more manipulative. Aron, simple, is what he is, does what he does; shoots a rabbit to take home to his father, falls in love with a little girl called Abra. Caleb, calculating, brings up the question of to which brother the killing shot should be attributed, sabotages Aron’s gift for Abra. As they grow older, Aron spends time at the church and considers becoming a minister; Cal wanders the city streets at night, restless, watching gamblers and drunks and whores. And that’s how he discovers his mother.

This all-chaff woman, who has used sexuality only ever as a weapon, has, by another bout of murderous deceit, become proprietress of a whorehouse—the cruelest, darkest, and most depraved of whorehouses in town, using intimidation and the threat of blackmail, amateur pharmacology, and a surprising understanding of fetish to terrorize her employees and customers. At the novel’s long-promised climax, Caleb, who has been following her for some time, trying to diagnose his own troubling mean streak, shows her to the sensitive and naïve Aron, who in a fit of shock and horror enlists in the Army and summarily dies fighting in WWI. Cal’s fury at the moment was born from his father’s rejection of his hard-earned gift of $15,000, which he earned by investing in bean futures (a good investment in war-time), and Adam’s concurrent praise of Aron, who’d finished high school a year early and enrolled in college at Stanford, for which achievement, masterminded by Caleb in the first place, Aron was given an engraved gold watch, while Cal was ignored.

Steinbeck’s Cain feels all the guilt of having slain Abel, though he hasn’t done it with the direct blows of the Biblical Cain. But at the heart of the book and pulsing through to the end, is a scene in which the Chinese Lee, the Irish Sam Hamilton, and the dazed Adam discuss the brothers’ parable, the as-yet unnamed Cal and Aron sitting on the kitchen floor, too young to walk or talk. Lee, a lover of books and a scholar by nature, had brought a question of semantics to the Chinese elders in town, who in turn had brought it to a set of Hebrew scholars, for he had discovered a single but pregnant difference in two translations of God’s curse upon Cain. The Hebrew word “timshel,” translated in one Bible as “thou shalt rule over [sin],” and in another as “do thou rule over [sin],” issued here in English as first a promise, than an order, actually translates best, he found, to “thou mayest rule over [sin]”—a challenge, a confirmation of free will. This is the final word that Adam issues to Cal on his deathbed, when Lee begs the man to give his sole surviving son his blessing, i.e. his absolution for Aron’s death. Cal, having met his inhuman mother face-to-face, realized with some relief that he was not like her, not unexplained greed and cruelty and hate. Aron, though, unable to face the darkness of his mother, or even the plain sexual reality of the world (revealed in his physical withdrawal from Abra into the repressive chastity of the church), like those false translations, had no free will, could only “rule over” so-called “sin,” or perish, the other side of his mother’s inhuman coin.

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