The Winter of Our Discontent by Jon Steinbeck
4 out of 5 stars
Yep, more Steinbeck! Are you getting sick of it yet? ;) I think I'm almost done...I have Of Mice & Men to review and I checked out Tortilla Flat from the library this weekend. Maybe another Literary Death Match for those two? We'll see!
As my official July classic, this one was almost up there with Cannery Row. It has a good story, with an actual linear plot, where most of his books don't. But it also has those beautiful descriptive passages that I love so much.
A day, a livelong day, is not one thing but many. It changes not only in growing light toward zenith and decline again, but in texture and mood, in tone and meaning, warped by a thousand factors of season, of heat or cold, of still or multi winds, torqued by odors, tastes, and the fabrics of ice or grass, of bud or leaf or black-drawn naked limbs. And as a day changes so do its subjects, bugs and birds, cats, dogs, butterflies and people.
This is essentially a story about a man, Ethan Allen Hawley, and his struggle between his morals and his desire for ambition. Ethan is middle-aged, married, with two teenage children. He is a war vet and a grocery store clerk. He is the grandson of a successful sea captain/pirate. His family helped found the town and his name still holds weight. But for Ethan, none of that means anything if he doesn't have the money to back it up. To his family, he is a failure. A decent, hard-working man, but a failure nonetheless.
Ethan has a dry sense of humor and a strong sarcastic streak, so it's kind of hard to tell sometimes whether he is being serious or not. He calls his wife silly pet names, like "ladybug", "my rumpled duck", and "wiggles". But underneath that, you can tell he loves her with all his heart and will do anything to make her happy. Anything.
The high level of morality that Ethan has attained over the years is threatened when he starts to notice that his friends and fellow businessmen are only concerned with two things: money and how to get more money. He begins to struggle with the idea that maybe he should join them in that quest for more, more, more. Suddenly, Ethan is ambushed everywhere he turns by greed, deceit, and scheming. Should he join them? Should he make his family proud finally and become a success again? At the cost of his morals? At the cost of his life-long friends and the high standards his children hold him to?
That pivotal moment when he decides to go thru with his plans: giving his old friend, Danny, money to essentially drink himself to death so that he leaves his land in Ethan's name; making the step by step plans to rob the bank; turning his boss into immigration and in turn getting the store back...all these things bring Ethan to an ethical crisis. This is probably crazy (and speaks to my own lackluster moral standards), but I actually wanted Ethan to rob the bank and was pretty disappointed when he didn't.
Does he deserve the money and success, just because he got away with it? Everyone still thinks he is an upstanding citizen, but in his heart, he knows he is not. He is horrified to realize his children have somehow inherited that dark streak: his son plagiarized his winning essay, his daughter tattles on him. Yes, he is successful now, but how can he live with himself knowing how he got there?
That moment at the very end, 3 pages from the last, when he goes to the bathroom and picks up the razor blades made my heart stop for a minute. I desperately wish Steinbeck had gone on one more chapter after that. Yes, Ethan was saved by his daughter that time. But will there be another time? How can he go on living like that? Will he do something good with his money or become one of the suit-wearing, fast-talking, slick businessmen in town? Ugh, such an ending!
You know most people live ninety percent in the past, seven percent in the present and that only leaves them three percent for the future.