I cheated a little. I cheated a little on this first book in my quest to blog—and read—the classics for fun by picking Steinbeck. I’ve never read Steinbeck for fun, but if there were an author in the canon I’d read for fun, Steinbeck would be my guy. The man writes like an angel. OK, as I type this, he’s staring up at me from his author picture with a penetrating gaze and half-smoked cigarette in hand, so I’d better revise. He writes like a god. His perfect verbs make me want to cry. He doesn’t waste a single adjective.
Given Steinbeck’s mastery of the craft of writing, it was very difficult for me to turn off my English major’s brain as I re-read the first two chapters of Of Mice and Men. I kept seeing references to the Garden of Eden, and man’s swift fall from grace. Once I slapped myself a few times, though, I began enjoying this book in a different way than I had before: as a buddy story.
The buddy story usually follows some very simple rules. The buddies have to be opposites. Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy in The Heat. They have to hate each other on some level, but also be utterly devoted to each other. And at some point, one of them needs to perform a totally unnecessary tracheotomy with a butter knife. Oh, sorry. Flashing back to The Heat again.
Steinbeck’s George Milton and Lennie Small definitely have the yin/yang thing going on. Physically, mentally, emotionally, they’re about as opposite as you can get. They’ve got the requisite love-hate relationship as well. What I’m liking most on this reading, though, is the way George’s devotion to Lennie seems to keep him human, to give him a heart. I know this ties in to Steinbeck’s theme about the power of the bonds of brotherhood, but setting that aside, there’s something so poignant about the way Lennie’s innocence helps realistic/pessimistic George to hold on to his dream. The dream of owning a little piece of land is, quite literally, a bedtime story that George repeats for both of them. But through Lennie’s childlike eyes, it takes on dimension and possibility—at least for a moment.
Of course, because Steinbeck is a master, Lennie isn’t just the prism for the dream; he’s also the dream’s undoing. The moment the guys leave their riverside campsite behind for the ranch, the cruel reality of the real world rears its fanged head. By the end of chapter two, trouble is already brewing: Curley, the son of the boss, is angling for a fight, and Lennie’s all too taken with Curley’s wife. Like in any good buddy story, George promises to protect Lennie. But this is Steinbeck, after all, not some Hollywood buddy comedy. Funny enough, even though I know how Of Mice and Men ends, now I don’t want to put it down.