Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Review: "The Pastures of Heaven"

The Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck
4 out of 5 stars

Steinbeck can do no wrong in my opinion. (Even The Pearl and The Red Pony, which I had to mark down for killing so much, are still literary masterpieces.) He has unequivocally become my favorite author. This little book of short stories is no different. The passion and love that Steinbeck has for his home town of Salinas, California shines thru on the pages of many of these books.

The layout is similar to that of Cannery Row, short chapters on various people in the small town and the escapades they get up to. But all of these stories center around one family, the Munroes, who move into the old cursed Battle farm. They manage to remake the farm into something prosperous and are good people but somehow they manage to bring bad luck to their neighbors and friends without even knowing it. Jobs become tedious, love affairs go awry, homes catch fire, and people even die.

“Maybe your curse and the farm's curse mated and gone into a gopher hole like a pair of snakes. Maybe they'll be a lot of baby curses crawling around in Pastures of Heaven.”

Unlike Cannery Row, there is not an optimism to these stories. These people get worn down and broken and it's sad to read about. *spoilers ahead* My favorite story (and the saddest in my opinion) was about Pat Humbert, a 30-something year old man who lives with his elderly parents until they die. He inherits their family home but cannot bring himself to make any changes or even enter the sitting room that his parents inhabited each day. He closes it up and ignores the ghosts that haunt him at night, by going out to town and joining all the groups he can find. Even though he joins these groups and participates, he is still on the sidelines, rarely interacting with others unless they do so first. One day, he overhears the young and lovely Mae Munroe (of the cursed Munroes) mention how beautiful the outside of his home is and this sparks an energy in him to remake his home and himself, so that he may eventually court the girl. He starts with the sitting room and tears it apart, freeing the ghosts inside. He becomes obsessed with redecorating, even looking at magazines at the library. He finally finishes and declares himself ready to greet Mae. But when he goes over to her home, he discovers the family celebrating her engagement to another young man in town. And he is heartbroken. He returns home and is repulsed by all his effort, claims the home is dark and unutterably dreary, and refuses to step foot into the house again, sleeping in the barn instead. That is where his story ends.

After the bare requisites to living and reproducing, man wants most to leave some record of himself, a proof, perhaps, that he has really existed. He leaves his proof on wood, on stone or on the lives of other people. 
This deep desire exists in everyone, from the boy who writes dirty words in a public toilet to the Buddha who etches his image in the race mind. 
Life is so unreal. I think that we seriously doubt that we exist and go about trying to prove that we do.

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