I was just now reading an article in the current issue of The New York Review of Books (subscription required) called The Rescue of John Steinbeck. As a kid, I read a bunch of Steinbeck, and liked how he confirmed my most radical adolescent impulses to smash the state. Which have of course persisted, even if my fondness for Steinbeck has not. However, my current interest is because of a book titled Beyond the Outer Shores: The Untold Odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the Pioneering Ecologist Who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell -- with the greater part of my Mystic Bourgeois curiosity naturally focused on the latter (how I would love to blow away his hero at a thousand paces). The NYRB writer says a good deal about Ricketts -- e.g., Steinbeck's "moving and perceptive tribute" to him in the introduction to The Log from the Sea of Cortez -- but sadly for me, doesn't mention Campbell.
Never mind all that though. About 3/4 of the way in, in a discussion of Steinbeck's East of Eden (note the Oprah seal of approval), there's this:
The personal aspects of Eden are painful to relate. By the late 1940s, Steinbeck's second marriage had shattered. (Domestic life and giving birth to two boys, Thom and John, had kept Gwyn from the "creative" life she felt entitled to.)Now as it turns out, I knew both brothers from my first-round stretch in Boulder back in the late '70s. One afternoon I was passing the time in the trashy pre-renovation elegance of the Hotel Boulderado playing pigs with Thom and a woman whose name I've long since forgotten. We were drinking a good deal of Scotch and snorting lines of what Thom claimed was mescaline. I doubted it. Maybe it was an early batch of Ecstasy. Who knows? At any rate, we were plenty high when we finally left the hotel -- and immediately got pulled over by a cop. Terrific. We were holding all sorts of shit. As I was driving, I also got to do the talking. "No, I was not aware that my passenger-side tail light was not working, Officer." All polite and deferential. "Do you mind if I get out and look?" He did not, so I did. "Ah, that's the first I knew of it, thanks. I'll have it taken care of first thing in the morning." I got back into the car. "See that you do," he said, and drove off. My two passengers then broke into spontaneous and heartfelt applause. I'd saved our bacon with aplomb, despite the fact -- obvious to everyone but the cop -- that I was shitface wasted.
I knew John much better. We first met at Le Bar, the now defunct watering hole that was host to much of the post-beatnik riff-raff then skulking about Boulder and the nascent Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Burroughs was often sitting off in a corner solo, wondering what snakes dream about, but I gave him a wide berth. It was from John that I first learned the meaning of the word "smarmy," because that's what he accused me of being. I was stung. It hurt. But I also knew he was right. On about three seconds of reflection, I had to agree that, yes, I was being an asshole. Copious drafts of Scotch whiskey allowed us to explore the cause of this in some depth. Later, he told me about walking away from the war in Vietnam and becoming, for a time, a Buddhist monk.
Several years later, I ended up at his place a total mess. He told me I had to check into detox. How the hell do I do that, I wanted to know. And what's "detox"? I was utterly clueless. "You've come to the right place," he told me, all warmth and camaraderie. "Most people don't know how this works, but I'm a past master. I'll show you how it's properly done." We then went out and bought a quart of hooch, which on returning to his house, we drank until we were both righteously hammered and half blind. He then drove me to the Alcohol Recovery Center, where they shot me up with Valium. I don't remember much after that.
Eventually, John and I both got sober, I in 1984, he toward the end of that decade. Back in Boulder in 1992 after stints in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Tokyo, I was sad beyond words to learn he had died the previous year. He was a good man. And his own.
Which I suppose is why, when I first came across it in 2002, I passed on The Other Side of Eden: Life With John Steinbeck, posthumously co-authored by his wife Nancy. I was then back in the throes of the same madness that had driven me -- John at the wheel -- to that first detox, though I was wasn't drinking. Just crazy. And just starting to think about the puzzle I would later begin trying to work out in Mystic Bourgeoisie. There's evidence of something important here, I thought, sitting on the floor, paging through the book in the New Biography aisle at the Boulder Barnes & Noble. But I put it back on the shelf. It was too much, too painful, still too raw.
A few minutes ago, I looked it up again on Amazon. Neither Library Journal nor Publishers Weekly was kind to it, but I did find this:
Nancy does contribute an interesting, somewhat iconoclastic point of view rife with New Age inflections.Ah yes, the ever-popular New Age inflections. The Curse of Boulder, and now the world. A man's life paved over with a travesty of smarmy platitudes. There's evidence of something important here, I thought, clicking a used copy into my cart. Perhaps even now it's not too late.
the unlikely story of how America slipped the surly bonds of earth & came to
believe in signs & portents that would make the middle ages blush
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New Age "Asiatic" thought ... is establishing itself as the
hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. (Zizek)
Monday, March 31