WIBR Tournament – Championship Finals
We’re back in business. Now let’s crown a champion.
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The What I’ve Been Reading Tournament of Books
Rabbit Angstrom – John Updike
When you dedicate a novel to your two sons, you tend to pour every ounce of your effort into making it the best.
This was the case with John Steinbeck and East of Eden, a novel that served to capture every ounce of his life in the Salinas Valley in California – every piece of land, every life met, every quirk and blade of grass. He takes the temperature of the area and concludes with an incredibly detailed prescription – a look at what caused every hardship, a plan to recreate the joys, a little something to keep the swelling in his heart at bay lest it break at the notion of losing his home altogether. He didn’t just dedicate it to his sons. He dedicated it to the Salinas Valley itself, writing a love letter to those dusty fields, to that backwater town, to the people he grew up with.
It’s masterfully layered, with each generation’s mistakes piling up on the former, creating a solid foundation of failure – and ultimately, hope – that future generations could build upon; Adam Trask cowered in the memory of his brother and father, Cal and Aron felt the unknown shadow of their long lost mother holding them hostage, each character finding refuge in something unhealthy, in pride and greed and a desire to carve out some sort of legacy among his or her peers.
East of Eden is more than a novel about the Salinas Valley. It’s a veiled attempt at reinterpreting The Bible, a raw and gritty look at the darker side of human nature. It has its fair share of joy. But joy has never made for great drama, and the intertwining lives in East of Eden are filled with a higher level of drama, like the difference between the tension in The Godfather, Part II versus a simple episode of Law and Order.
If Steinbeck ever set out to write the Great American Novel, this was it. In talking about East of Eden, Steinbeck said, “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years. I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.”
I say all of this now because I haven’t really had much of a chance to explain my love for East of Eden yet. East of Eden has blown out every book it has faced, leaving me with no need to extrapolate a reasoning from the cause of the destruction. Rabbit Angstrom, on the other hand, has been analyzed and justified for three straight rounds. I’ve had to reason with myself as to why it should make it to the Finals, why it should beat The Road and how I could possibly have taken it over Gilead back in the first match-up.
I took a break in the tournament because I felt the Rabbit Angstrom steam-train was about ready to derail, taking the entire tournament with it and causing every decision to be seen with an air of mockery. With the exception of The Road, these two books are the best I’ve read since writing this column, and East of Eden deserved to put its lackadaisical run to the finals behind it – to curb the momentum of Rabbit Angstrom and see how things match up with a clear head and a logical mind.
A week ago, Rabbit Angstrom would have won.
It deserves it. For it’s importance alone. I’ve thrown around terms like “time capsule” and “voice of the generation,” and they’re all true. Rabbit Angstrom is a chronicle of the turn of each decade since 1960. It’s an amazing case study in the idea of Everyman, a man who lives life with a restless eye turned toward the past, who eats poorly and develops heart disease and experiences the rise and fall of success and divorce and children and death and honor and a confused sense of purpose.
But a week later, with both books battering around my head, with the plots reviewed and the emotions freshened, I can’t look past the fact that East of Eden isn’t just the best book I’ve read in the past three years. The fact is, it could be the best book I’ve ever read. Period. End. That’s it. That’s all she wrote, kids. Stick a knife in everything else, etc.
East of Eden‘s path to the Final Four seemed predestined, with a random drawing moving the book into an easy bracket, its closest competitors sitting together in the same quadrant, ready to knock each other off. East of Eden was this year’s Celtics, the best book, but so far ahead that you start to forget about it, start making reasons for its demise and stop believing that it was anything special in the first place.
But it is. Oh, man. It is. The tournament was filled with close match-ups. But when we get down to the end, there was probably only one book that ever had a chance to begin with.
East of Eden – John Steinbeck