What I’ve Been Reading – The Red Pony

I haven’t finished a work of fiction since March. I haven’t finished a work of fiction longer than a short story since last September.

What I’ve Read:

The Red Pony by John Steinbeck

That’s almost a year.

The Red PonyNow, before you take away my library card, hear me out. I HAVE been reading books. But I’ve also been starting a new job and learning to live with TWO kids and fixing a basement and discovering streaming Netflix and playing with new technology and doing all sort of other distracting things.

I’ve read books about basketball and about information architecture and about HTML5. I’ve read two collections of short stories from my McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern subscription. I’ve read about music and I’ve read about content strategy and I’ve read about writing itself.

But no real fiction. Nothing longer than a couple dozen pages.

The excuses, the excuses.

The truth is, I was exhausted with fiction. Though I missed it, I couldn’t get back into it. I forced the matter, I took it up with our library, and I wandered home wondering how I’d just checked out a John Steinbeck novella; primarily, wondering if I’d ever even open it, if I’d ever care again.

Of course I’d care. Because reading and literature are as much a part of my personality as try-too-hard sarcasm; my upbringing was framed by bookshelves, my preferences dictated by others’ words. And everything I loved about books peaked over two year’s worth of Steinbeck – I read The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden and Tortilla Flat and Travels With Charley and fell in love with Salinas and Steinbeck and everything he stood for: great literature, themes and message that struck at the heart of human emotion.

The Red Pony, a novella from the early days of Steinbeck’s canon, fits under all three categories – great literature, great themes and a great message; a quick overview of the life cycle as viewed through the eyes of a young farm boy.

But, let’s be honest – I could gush about Steinbeck for hours, using as many fancy words as I could think of, filling my sentences with adjectives until they buckled under the strain. I won’t – you’re welcome – except to say The Red Pony, unlike Tortilla Flat and The Pearl (which are admittedly superior works) captures Steinbeck’s tendency toward realism and human suffering better than any of his other short works.

There is nothing complex about it. There’s a boy, a horse, and a family. There are two father figures who occupy the spectrum of understanding and tolerance. There’s the discovery of human fallacy, the reality of growing old, and the sacrifices of birth, all contributing to the slow coming of age of young Jody, a boy who really just wants a horse of his own.

Children do not come of age at once. Sure, Holden Caulfield immersed himself into the city and learned how to live as quickly as possible, but most children are exposed to life’s realities incrementally, coming to terms with death and life and the very existence of mortality not in one fell swoop, but through a series of occurrences. Sometimes they take a decade to unfold. Often, it’s even longer.

You could argue that, in this case, many of us are still struggling to come of age. We never really know if Jody reaches a solid point of understanding – like a short story, The Red Pony drops in and pulls out somewhere in the middle of the complete narrative – but we do know that he’s made progress, simply by the hints and symbols he leaves behind as we read.

That’s Steinbeck’s ultimate charm, I believe – this ability to tell a story through clues. Not through mystery, but through human nature; holding his cards to his chest, revealing only enough to win, throwing the rest away.

The Red Pony is fantastic. Coming from a Steinbeck fanatic, you probably shouldn’t expect anything less from me.

I guess that means I’m ready to start reading again.

This was lovingly handwritten on August 31st, 2010