Just returned from Monterey, California – inspiration for Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, East of Eden, and Cannery Row. Steinbeck wrote The Pastures of Heaven in Pacific Grove – not far from Asilomar, where I was enjoying the company of friends.
The Pastures of Heaven is a collection of short stories, written before Steinbeck’s more famous books; many of the stories foreshadow themes Steinbeck extends in later books. One tells about a family made to feel poor through the charity of others; another echoes Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men.
Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, but most of his early success was in the thirties and forties. One of his later books, Sweet Thursday, published in 1954, is the one I targeted for my plane ride home.
Not a fan of Steinbeck – I only read Grapes of Wrath because it was required for English 101 – I was pleasantly surprised by the funny sarcasm woven into the philosophy of Sweet Thursday. Sweet Thursday is the day that follows lousy Wednesday – haven’t you had a lousy Wednesday like this…
“Some days are born ugly. From the very first light they are no damn good whatever the weather, and everybody knows it. No one knows what causes this, but on such a day people resist getting out of bed and set their heels against the day. When they are finally forced out by hunger or a job, they find that the day is just as lousy as they knew it would be.
On such a day, it is impossible to make a good cup of coffee, shoestrings break, cups leap from the shelf by themselves and shatter on the floor….This is the day the cat chooses to have kittens and the housebroken dogs wet on the floor.
Oh! It’s awful, such a day! The postman brings overdue bills. If it’s a sunny day it is too damn sunny, and if it is dark who can stand it?”
Steinbeck’s characters are feisty and live the hard life in the real world – as in most of his writing – but in Sweet Thursday, life gets better. Steinbeck reintroduces Doc from Cannery Row; he’s returned from the war, and cannot get back to the way things were – mostly, because nothing will ever again be as it was. The story revolves around his discontent, his attempt to write a scholarly paper about octopus emotions, and finally finding an unlikely soul mate in Suzy, the hooker.
Others conspire to help Doc become fulfilled and happy – each having a different, sometimes hilarious, plan that will keep you smiling and nodding knowingly: Flora, renamed Fauna, the madam of the local brothel; Hazel (male), whose fortune reading by the Seer predicts Hazel will be president; Joe Elegant; Wide Ida; Mack, Joseph and Mary, and on it goes.
Luckily, lousy Wednesday is followed by sweet Thursday – a day when Doc cooks sausages with chocolate and everything seems to go as planned – or better. Then, the aftermath on “waiting Friday,” wondering what Saturday will bring. Each chapter is titled with foreshadowing of the event to be described, and Steinbeck seems to be channeling Mark Twain at times, but the delivery is much more irreverent.
For Pacific Grove fans, Steinbeck includes a chapter on the famous butterflies in one of his two “hooptedoodle” chapters – interesting to read but nothing to do with the plot.
In the end, Doc gets the girl and his research, and drives off into the California sunset – funny and satisfying.
If you have a hankerin’ to revisit a classic writer, Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday is a sweet read.