After listening to "East of Eden" on audio, I decided I needed to read more of this Steinbeck fellow. I have no recollection of reading any of his work in high school, you see. So I ordered "Of Mice and Men" on audio next from the library.
But surely I have read this at one point in my life! Before this listening experience, I would have sworn that I hadn't. Because the entire story was told over only four discs, Heather and I decided it would be a great selection for our drive home from SIBA11 in Charleston.
Then I had an epiphany. Everything seemed way too familiar. I HAD read this in high school...and I blocked it out of my mind. And for good reason. Everything about this story made my stomach turn. Heather and I were screaming at the narrator. As a young impressionable teenager, I'm sure everything about this story traumatized me. But I will get to all that here in a minute.
Synopsis: Again, a bogus effort, similar to my attempt to summarize "East of Eden". So for the three people out there that have not read this book:
Two men, one street-wise and the other mentally challenged, are migrant farm workers wandering about the California countryside looking for a job amidst the depression. They are running from their past because the slower man, Lennie, is strong and hulking but has the mentality of a five year old. He touches pretty things and soft things, like a small animal or a woman's shiny hair, but doesn't understand when it is too rough or inappropriate. Lennie dreams of a day when he and his caretaker, George, can live in their own house, have a garden and raise rabbits. He is joyous at the thought and begs for George to spin the fantasy for him often.
Lennie and George find jobs at a ranch, but immediately one senses trouble. A jealous husband with a trigger temper and something to prove. A pretty young flirtatious wife. Puppies. A black migrant worker and a white migrant worker with a maimed hand, lost souls that don't remember what it is like to have a goal or a dream. Once again Steinbeck goes to visceral, uncomfortable, dark places in the heart where loneliness and powerlessness reside.
My thoughts: So back to my high school self. It is no wonder I refused to remember I'd read this book. As a 45 year-old, I almost couldn't sit through it. I imagine a 16 year-old, who was always disturbed when the weak were picked on, and who loved animals, had to turn her head, close her eyes, cover her ears, and scream "LALALALALA". This story was so torturous, I even think it should count for the RIP Challenge.
I'll admit, yes, Steinbeck's writing is gorgeous. And he so incredibly astute when it comes to verbalizing the emotions that make a person squirm. The issues addressed offer hours of discussable topics. But I did not enjoy the experience. I felt sick to my stomach.
George was Lennie's protector, but he was incredibly mean-spirited with him at times. He preyed on Lennie's insecurities. Everyone preyed on Lennie's weaknesses, even those most downtrodden. Instead of appreciating Lennie for his innocence and loyalty and friendliness, they delighted in scaring him or confusing him. It was heart-breaking.
So many people in the story longed to have a dream. Once they heard about George and Lennie's fantasy farm with the rabbits, they wanted to come along too, offering to wash dishes or help with the gardening. But we know all along, this is never going to happen. This was heart-breaking too.
And don't even get me started on the cruelty to animals. Heather almost made me turn the audio off a couple of times. Let's just face it, my heart had been chewed up and spit out at the end of the four discs. I think it is safe to call the story powerful. But it contained more power than I could handle.
A word about the audio production: Various versions of this audio exist (one narrated by Gary Sinise, which is probably a great listen), but this one was tackled by Mark Hammer, who was perfect. I have experienced Hammer in some of his work with the James Lee Burke series and the Lawrence Block series, and he is memorable. His vocalization had a huge range, his accents were pitch-perfect, and captured the essence of each personality. Steinbeck would have been proud.
4 out of 5 stars
A note about the rating: I struggled with this one. Steinbeck is brilliant in so many ways, so for that reason, this book could have been a 5. The narration was certainly a 5. But the plot itself left me at such loose ends, so sickened, that I had to pull it down a star.