Posts by: "Bill Steigerwald"

I’ve just finished reading Phil Caputo’s travel book “The Longest Road” for a future review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and TwoAmericanRoadTrips.com, our web site that will debut soon.

Caputo, typically, had to make his token complaints against “sprawl.” He noted Miami’s “ghastly sprawl” and worried later — despite seeing the vast open spaces of middle America — that his grandchildren were going to inherit a country of sprawling metropolises with nothing in between.

Sprawl — urban or suburban — is one of America’s great evils, at least according to our elite writers and thinkers and worriers. Steinbeck whined about it way back in 1960, when he saw Seattle’s post-WWII growth spurt mowing down trees to build houses for suburban pioneers.

Sprawl is a mythical evil, a bogey man of American life probably invented by the New Yorker magazine that you’re not supposed to think about, just hate.

Here’s my sardonic definition of what sprawl really is, urban or suburban. It’ll be the first entry of my new Politically Incorrect Devil’s Dictionary:

“Sprawl: The unnecessary, cancerous growth of your city’s boundaries created by greedy people you don’t like who had the nerve to build their ugly new neighborhoods, roads and shopping districts on empty farmland after you did.”

The great Phil Caputo, author of “A Rumor of War” and other fine books, took a sweet 16,000-mile road trip in the fall of 2011 with his trophy wife, trophy dogs and trophy pickup truck with Airstream travel van.

The 80 Americans he met from Key West to Nome are the main attraction in “The Longest Road,” which is being reviewed and promoted everywhere and will be available July 16.

As I found out while trying to get a publisher for what became “Dogging Steinbeck,” road books are tough sells — unless you’re famous.

Maybe Caputo would like to join Ethan Casey and me this fall on our West Coast book-promoting tour, which we are calling Two American Road Trips and is further explained at our Facebook Page.

“The Longest Road,” as described on Amazon:

One of America’s most respected writers takes an epic journey across America, Airstream in tow, and asks everyday Americans what unites and divides a country as endlessly diverse as it is large.

Standing on a wind-scoured island off the Alaskan coast, Philip Caputo marveled that its Inupiat Eskimo schoolchildren pledge allegiance to the same flag as the children of Cuban immigrants in Key West, six thousand miles away. And a question began to take shape: How does the United States, peopled by every race on earth, remain united? Caputo resolved that one day he’d drive from the nation’s southernmost point to the northernmost point reachable by road, talking to everyday Americans about their lives and asking how they would answer his question.

So it was that in 2011, in an America more divided than in living memory, Caputo, his wife, and their two English setters made their way in a truck and classic trailer (hereafter known as “Fred” and “Ethel”) from Key West, Florida, to Deadhorse, Alaska, covering 16,000 miles. He spoke to everyone from a West Virginia couple saving souls to a Native American shaman and taco entrepreneur. What he found is a story that will entertain and inspire readers as much as it informs them about the state of today’s United States, the glue that holds us all together, and the conflicts that could cause us to pull apart.

Call it TART, for short, but don’t confuse Two American Road Trips with any stinking Big Government rescue scheme.

TART is the unofficial acronym of “Two authors, two road trips, two Americas,” a co-venture in travel book promoting and selling that’s being put together by me and my new pal Ethan Casey of Seattle.

Ethan — billed as a liberal and author of “Home Free” — and I — billed as a true-blue libertarian — are going to hit the highway this fall and appear together at libraries and indy bookstores from coast-to-coast.

We’ll each spew our versions of the America we saw from the front seats of our cars. Ethan out-drove me, wracking up 18,000 miles in the fall of 2012 to my puny 11,276.

So far we’re only officially booked into venues in Seattle and Mt. Lebanon, a Pittsburgh suburb.

But more dates are going to come, especially in the Bay Area and Monterey County, aka Steinbeck Country, during late October and early November.

Anyone finding this page knows the pain I’ve caused Steinbeck fans. But here’s a little blurb from the PR department about young Mr. Casey:

In the fall of 2012 Ethan Casey drove clockwise around America during the election season.

The result is “Home Free,” an entertaining and edifying work of personal reporting in the spirit of his previous travel narratives, “Alive and Well in Pakistan” (“Intelligent and compelling” – Mohsin Hamid) and “Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti” (“Heartfelt” – Paul Farmer).

“I’m now turning my attention to another society struggling through a time of confusion, economic and political distress and transition,” says Casey, who’s working hard to finish “Home Free” by fall. “America is susceptible to the same forces and trends as any other country.”

 

My debut solo speaking performance on behalf of my book “Dogging Steinbeck” occurred without a hitch or a lawsuit Wednesday night in the lovely Toledo suburb of Perrysburg.

Thanks to the promotional efforts of Richard Baranowski of the Way Library, I was written up nicely beforehand by Arielle Stambler and in a local paper by Baranowski. About 60 multi-diverse humans attended, all lovely, all eager to learn about how I discovered that “Travels With Charley” was a literary fraud.

No one threw anything or even booed. And 12 people forked over real money for my book.

In the fall 2011 issue of the Steinbeck Review, Tom Barden, a smart and sensible English professor and dean at the University of Toledo, reviewed two 2010 “Travels With Charley”-centric books.

The quarterly’s editor, who edited the 2012 book “Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War,” looked at “Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America” by Bill Barich and “Travels with Max: In Search of Steinbeck’s America Fifty Years Later” by Gregory Zeigler.

First, however, professor Barden validated my discoveries about the lack of veracity in “Charley.” He based his opinion not on my book “Dogging Steinbeck,” which did not exist yet, but on what I had revealed in my April 2011 Reason magazine article, “Sorry, Charley.” Barden also said that Steinbeck’s serial inventions were no surprise or shock to anyone, especially academics like him, since Steinbeck was a novelist.

Here’s what Barden wrote in the Review:

I was not particularly drawn to the premise of Barich’s and Zeigler’s books. Delving into 21st century America’s soul via Steinbeck’s 1961 Travels with Charley struck me as too contrived. But readers of Steinbeck Review deserve an appraisal of the resulting volumes, especially in light of Bill Steigerwald’s “Sorry, Charley” essay in the April 2011 issue of Reason magazine, so here goes.

First, I should weigh in on Steigerwald. His research into motel bills, restaurant checks, and private letters made what I found to be a thoroughly convincing case that Steinbeck’s narrative in Travels with Charley in Search of America did not reflect anything close to his actual trip. Steigerwald presented ample documentation that Steinbeck spent most of his time in posh motor hotels eating good dinners with his wife Elaine, who was with him much more than he let on. The responses to Steigerwald’s revelations varied from incensed (Steinbeck’s daughter-in-law), to defensive (Steinbeck scholars Jay Parini and Susan Shillinglaw), to sympathetic toward Steinbeck (travel writer Paul Theroux). My response was basically–so what? I was reminded of John Steinbeck IV’s comment about his father’s book in The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck. Speaking for his brother Thom and himself, he wrote “we were convinced that he never talked to any of those people in Travels with Charley. He just sat in his camper and wrote all that shit. He was too shy. He was really frightened of people who saw through him. He couldn’t have handled that amount of interaction. So the book is actually a great novel.” (p. 151) Exactly. Oh my, he invented most of the content of Travels with Charley…zoot alors! Not only that, people, he paid for stories from Mexicans when he worked at the Spraekel’s Sugar factory in Salinas as a teenager and used them later—like that one about a nursing mother who saves a starving old man by breastfeeding him.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Steigerwald’s research and the ensuing controversy was the clear assumption by everybody concerned that Steinbeck’s book is still worth discussing after fifty years. I think Travels with Charley does still matter. But I don’t think it matters because of its veracity (or lack thereof), or its ideas, or its insights about American culture. To me, it still matters because it is packed from beginning to end with terrific and terrifically idiosyncratic writing at the sentence level. Pick it up and start reading randomly and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll run into passages like this one about the giant redwoods in Northern California—“In the redwoods nearly the whole of daylight is a quiet time. Birds move in the dim light or flash like sparks through the stripes of sun, but they make little sound.” (p. 171)

So, to return to the books under review, I used the yardstick of Steinbeck’s spectacular prose to review Barich and Zigler’s books. By that measure, one of them holds up pretty well and the other doesn’t. I’ll start with the latter. Zeigler’s little yappy-looking dog Max appears on both the front and back covers of his book and is also featured in many of the photos interspersed throughout the text. I did not take the dog or the illustrations as a good sign. Flipping through the text before I started reading, I felt as if I were about to be subjected to somebody’s boring vacation slideshow. My suspicions were confirmed when I started reading—the prose, like the dog, was too cute, the Steinbeck trope was too labored, and any intellectual or emotional stimulation was pretty much absent. Zeigler covered 15,000 miles in nine weeks, and it felt like it took that long to get through his book. He wove references to Steinbeck’s trip, his poodle, his biography, and even his family’s feud over copyright issues into his narrative, and all the while maintained a running commentary on such interesting roadside attractions as the Lion’s Den Adult Bookstore, geezer geyser gazers, a veterinary insemination operation that bragged “we do cows,” and the general beauty and/or scuzziness of the American landscape. But, for me, it never coalesced into a meaningful trip or travel narrative. The cover blurb says “Travels with Max offers a retrospective on Steinbeck and his work, as well as an insightful, humorous and upbeat perspective on modern America.” But I didn’t get the insights, the humor, or the retrospectives. For instance, here’s Zeigler’s description of a saguaro cactus that was located in too close proximity to a golf course: “Wild hitters like me had slammed drives into their green flesh. Some were studded with several balls, like buttons on a stout man’s vest.” I couldn’t help comparing that negatively with Steinbeck’s description of the giant redwoods.

Barich’s book, on the other hand, is well conceived, well written, and, fortunately, un-illustrated. Even before starting, I was impressed by the effusive cover blurbs about Barich’s writing. Jim Harrison, a Michigan-based poet and novelist for whom I have huge respect said simply “Barich is a splendid prose stylist.” And Larry McMurtry, a master storyteller by anybody’s standards, agreed. They are right. He writes with measured dignity and has a good ear for dialog and a sharp eye for telling detail.

As to content, Barich follows Steinbeck’s lead in avoiding major cities and typical tourist attractions. Although he visits Washington, D.C. and passes through St. Louis on Interstate 70 (where the drivers’ aggression terrified him), he focuses mostly on small towns like Culpeper, Virginia, Chillicothe, Ohio and Florence, Kansas. There’s humor in Barich’s book, but it is not of the corny variety Zeigler indulged and it is more connected to ideas and thoughtful observations. In Shenandoah National Park, for example, he notices that “Americans used to travel to beautiful spots to get away from it all, but now they bring it all with them.” Unlike Steinbeck’s, Barich’s road trip is one-way–east to west. He arrives in California via Needles and makes his way to Monterey on the coast, where he muses at length on “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden,” both of which he loves and respects. Finally, he pulls in to San Francisco – a city he lived in for many years – just in time for Election Day, 2008.

That election looms large over Long Way Home. The book ends in a mood buoyed by the fact that America, for all its historical racism and injustice, has just elected the young, smart and eloquent Barack Hussein Obama. All through the book, but especially at the end, he rejects the world-weariness and gloom that hung over Steinbeck’s trip with Charley. Where Steinbeck found moral and spiritual malaise, Barich found America renewing itself after eight years of George W. Bush. It is a thrill to feel, but that buoyancy seems pretty raveled and frayed now. Bigotry, ignorance and fear-mongering didn’t fade away; in fact, they seem to have gotten stronger in response to Obama’s cerebral calmness. The wrenching ending of Steinbeck’s book stands in contrast to Barich’s optimistic finale, but the venom of those “cheerleaders” who screamed profanities at little African American girls as they walked to school in Civil Rights Era Mississippi is on daily display now on Fox News, on talk radio, and in much of the Republican Party. On finishing Barich’s book, I felt a strong surge of missing John Steinbeck. I think he would be more effective than most of our current progressive voices in confronting and refuting today’s Rush Limbaughs, Pat Robertsons and Glenn Becks head-on.

Make fun of Rush Limbaugh all you want.

But this rant of his about government snooping and what he calls “the Obama Coup”  was spoken, not written, and it’s impressive.

Too bad Rushbo didn’t/doesn’t realize the government snooping problem is not just an Obama thing or a liberal Democrat thing.

It’s the result of the incredible power conservatives and liberals have given to the federal government and the way the federal government can be used by either party of assholes to do all kinds of bad stuff to individuals.

Too bad Rush and the other conservatives were in the tank for Bush for eight years.

And too bad Rush (and the NY Times and Fox and the WSJ and all the other media fucks who have no balls or brains) bought into the post-9/11 terrorism hysteria that has given the creeps in Washington the excuse to stomp on the Constitution and turn the country into a security state.

This bipartisan snooping by the assholes in DC is not new, just bigger and computerized.

Super-star best-selling author and Kennedy-family expert Laurence Leamer  and his new book “The Price of Justice” are being tortured by the brain-dead legacy publishing industry and the low-info dolts who run TV.

Below are two emails Leamer sent out to his friends and fellows describing what is and is not happening with his latest book.

“The Price of Justice,” which is almost guaranteed to become a movie some day, is about a pair of nobody Pittsburgh lawyers who went to court to challenge the nasty business practices of Don Blankenship, the former West Virginia coal baron and CEO of Massey Energy.

Leamer is a major best-selling dude.

Here’s how Wikipedia describes him:

Leamer is … regarded as an expert on the Kennedy family[2] and has … also written best-selling biographies of other American icons, including Johnny Carson, the Reagan family, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Here’s what Leamer wrote about his recent publishing experience in two emails sent May 15:

Subject: How is this possibly happening?

I’ve had a hell of a time with The Price of Justice, my new book.  Seventeen publishers rejected it.  They said the same thing.  The proposal was excellent, the story compelling and important but it was set in West Virginia and was about the coal industry and nobody would read it.  The Price of Justice has gotten the best reviews of my career, but when my publicist tries to pitch the book to national television as soon as she mentions West Virginia and coal, the bookers turn off.  So I’ve gotten no national publicity and no national reviews.  It’s key to have books up front at Barnes &  Noble.  The publishers pay for this.  Barnes & Noble had the same reaction as the bookers and they have refused to give us national coop.  In most of America, you have to walk to the back of the store and find maybe one or two copies in the legal section.  When I asked my agent if she had ever heard of a book succeed with such distribution, she said no.  Yet an amazing thing is happening.  The book is taking off.  It’s 223 on Amazon now and about the same on the Barnes & Noble website.  That’s New York Times bestseller list territory.  I’m just shaking my head and wondering how this is possibly happening.

His follow-up email offered more detail:

My book agent is Joy Harris.  She’s not only one of the best in the business but one of the most thoughtful.  If anyone should be concerned with the fact that I haven’t been able to get any national publicity for The Price of Justice, she should be.  But she put it in perspective for me this morning.  The problem, she suggests, is that when 29 miners at killed at Upper Big Branch or when 26 people are massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the media are there.  But within days the journalists fold up their tents and wait until the next tragic circus.  They have no time or intention of exploring the underlying causes.  When Leslie Brandon, my publicist at Henry Holt, tries to book me to talk about The Price of Justice on national television, the producers want a news hook.  If Don Blankenship, the villain of my book, is indicted they will happily have me on.  But they don’t have the time, the space, the intention of exploring the underlying problems of a region like West Virginia.  It’s a small state and the people are disregarded or caricatured.  But the wonderful thing is that people are hungry for what I have to say in this book, hungry to read about the battle of two ordinary lawyers against the most powerful coal baron in American history.  Amazon is running out of books, and in West Virginia there is a groundswell not simply of interest but excitement that finally somebody has told the truth about the corruption of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, the corruption of the political system, the corruption of Don Blankenship and Massey.

If Leamer has this much trouble getting a serious book published and promoted and covered by TV, what chance do no-name rookies have?

Maybe Jon Stewart or Brian Lamb will come to the rescue.

As of today, here are the Amazon sales rankings for “The Price of Justice,” which hopefully will be a success that makes the legacy publishing industry look bad:

Guest blog by  

I was born in 1965, the year the first U.S. combat troops went to Vietnam. Growing up in middle-class America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I distinctly remember that “Vietnam” – the place name stood in for a great many things left unsaid – was not discussed, almost taboo, among my parents’ generation. I didn’t realize this at the time, of course. I could only smell it, like the residue of something the dog left on the carpet, through the layers of deodorant and disinfectant.

Americans who had lived through “Vietnam” were emotionally and politically exhausted and had declared a tacit truce among themselves. That suited them – all of them, on all sides – but it left my generation poorly served. How can young people learn the lessons of history, if no one is willing to teach them? I had to assemble the puzzle for myself later, through self-directed reading and actually going to live in Southeast Asia. My first clue that I would need to do this came when I asked an older friend what “the sixties” had been all about, and he blurted out in bitter exasperation: “It was about how the blood of the war got on everyone’s hands, and we couldn’t wash it off. It’s still all over the place.”

And it still is. And now, even to get back to Vietnam to deal with it honestly, we would have to wade neck-deep through several more recent wars’ worth of moral and historical muck. I wonder what the chances are of that. We do have the excuse that we have immediate and pressing compulsions and distractions, as well as both genuine and bogus causes for optimism. But we always have those. We had them, for example, during “Vietnam” itself. “You would hear constantly, ‘Napalm will win the war for us,’ Clyde Edwin Pettit told me when I knew him in Bangkok in the mid-1990s, when he was returning annually to Vietnam. “F–king napalm was the greatest thing ever to come down the pike, you woulda thought. It was always something was winning the war.”

Pettit was the author of a prescient 1966 letter to J. William Fulbright that compelled that powerful senator to reverse his position on the war, and of the 1975 book The Experts: 100 Years of Blunder in Indo-China (alternate subtitle: The Book That Proves There Are None), which consists of 439 pages of nothing but direct quotations from politicians, professors, and pundits, all purporting to understand what was happening or to know what was going to happen in Vietnam, arranged chronologically. Read from cover to cover, as Ed insisted it should be, The Experts amounts to a narrative of mounting horror and increasingly tortuous self-delusion. If this sounds familiar, it should. If any document demonstrates the staying power of human self-delusion, it’s Pettit’s masterpiece.

It occurred to me recently that, if he were alive today, Ed Pettit might say that drones are the napalm of our time. The common element is death rained down from the sky, and drones take this a step further by leaving the inflictors of it safe back in the States. Anyone who understood as Pettit did that, far from being “the greatest thing ever to come down the pike,” napalm was both immensely destructive to civilians on the ground in Vietnam and counterproductive to American goals, would endorse the argument made by the Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid in the May 23 issue of The New York Review of Books, that any hope of building a reliable partnership with the governments of countries like Pakistan depends on

support for the complicated and unique internal political processes that can build in each a domestic consensus to combat extremists – who, after all, typically kill more locals than they do anyone else. International pressure and encouragement can help secure such a consensus. But it cannot be dispatched on the back of a Hellfire missile fired by a robot aircraft piloted by an operator sitting halfway around the world in Nevada.

I’m troubled by the fact that devices called drones feature prominently in Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman’s ominously-titled classic science-fiction novel The Forever War. I’m bothered by eyewitness accounts like that of William Dalrymple, author of Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42, who recently told a Seattle audience:

In movies there’s usually one drone, and these guys in their shirt sleeves in Virginia directing them. But in Jalalabad it’s sort of like a New York taxi rank: all these drones taking off, one after the other.

Above all, I’m haunted by my friend Uong Leap’s childhood memory of seeing Khmer Rouge fighters in the tops of palm trees, shooting AK-47s at U.S. helicopters in southeastern Cambodia in the early 1970s. “Oh, crazy time!” Leap told me, with a jarringly cheerful grin. Leap knows what came after that crazy time in Cambodia, because he survived it.

What will come after the current crazy time in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), called “intelligent and compelling” by Mohsin Hamid and “wonderful” by Edwidge Danticat. He is also the author of Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012) . His next book, Home Free: An American Road Trip, will be published in fall 2013 and is available for pre-purchase. Web: www.ethancasey.com. Facebook: www.facebook.com/ethancasey.author. Join his email list here.