Steinbeck for Dinner, Stallone for Dessert

Wayward Bus    I love a good thriller. Harlen Coben, Dan Brown, Andrew Greeley, Andy McNab, and Lee Child, to name a few, all have incredible skill at keeping me awake, finishing just one more chapter. Yeah, right. They’re good for mental health, too. Dallas traffic, work, watching TV, this (thank God it’s over!) latest college football season, the state of customer service today – all of those things make vicariously blowing things up, beating the hell out of bad guys, shooting really bad guys, and bringing justice and order to a chaotic world incredibly satisfying. If I really were Jack Reacher, driving in the DFW metroplex would never be the same. I love those books. They’re like a stack of Golden Oreos before bed, or an icy cold Shiner Bock (or two, or whatever) at the end of a long day. Often, though, I need more. I need a real meal instead of carbs and sugar.

Some of my earliest memories involve reading. It’s been one of my favorite things to do since I can remember having a favorite thing to do. When I was younger, I thought it was all about escaping. I had no idea how much I learned from each book. I picked a favorite, I believed, because it was exciting, or suspenseful, or had a character who was, in my mind, anyway, smoking hot. I made most of my closest junior high school friends in the library. Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Saga cemented a friendship that lasted through college. He and I sat next to each other in English, and in the eighth grade, I think, our teacher taught us how to read (understand, I mean the equivalent of hearing versus listening and understanding) literature, and it was tremendous sharing it with someone who got it and saw that vast new world as I did. Now my favorites reach their status because of the characters, the author’s skill, or what the book teaches me about myself and those around me. My friend and I have largely lost touch, but his intellect is a frightening thing, and I don’t doubt he feels the same. Those are the books that are mentally both nutritious and delicious. Those are the ones I find myself craving now.

Jeffrey Archer always fills that bill, as do Richard Russo, Jonathon Franzen, and Khaled Hosseini. I’ve even been known to take some guilty pleasure in a Joyce Carol Oates novel. Stephen King scares the hell out of us and keeps us reading because, as schlocky as he can be, he understands human nature and makes us look in a mirror, even when we don’t want to. Alfred Hitchcock does much the same. My favorite, though, is John Steinbeck. His last novel, America and Americans, was published in 1966, but his characters are just as relevant today as they were decades ago. And my suspicion is that they will show our great-grandchildren who they really are a hundred years from now.

I’ve recently almost finished Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus. It came from the library, and, I’m embarrassed to say, I’m going to have to buy it. It’s due tomorrow, and I’ve lost it. If I just wanted to finish the last three or four pages, I admit I would stand in the aisle in the bookstore and put an end to it. That’s not going to be the case, though. I’m going to read it again, more slowly, and study each character more closely. Steinbeck created each one of them in 3D. Typical of Steinbeck, I feel more like I’m sitting with the characters, enjoying a chat, instead of reading about them in a book. But wait, there’s more!

I’m going to read it yet again after I’ve digested the characters. They’re good, and I’ll learn a lot from them, but the third time through, I’m going to tear apart Steinbeck’s brilliant handling of POV with multiple characters. Stephen King’s It is the only comparison I can think of, and The Wayward Bus is better. I don’t know if I’ll ever try to write something with that many POV characters. I do know I’ll never write anything like Steinbeck. But maybe he can teach me to tell a story better than I could have told it before.

So, yes, I’m upset about buying a book from the library. But I’m figuring I’ve gotten a good read, made some new friends (a bus driver, a stripper, and a CEO, for starters), and will soon be getting a lesson in writing from one of the best authors ever to put pencil to paper. That’s a pretty good deal, I think.

If, however, any of you see my bus out there being wayward, please stop it and give me a call!

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