Saturday, July 3, 2021

The Great American Novel

May I suggest The Grapes of Wrath  by John Steinbeck? As I mentioned before, there are good storytellers a la John Grisham and Sue Grafton, good novelists a la Ann Patchett and Philip Roth and then great writers of literature like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and…well, John Steinbeck. This latter group combines intricate, well-paced and engaging plots with memorable characters, but the tipping point from novel to literature is deep insight into the human condition. The kind that needs a pencil on your bedside table to mark these luminous moments when they capture the complexity, promise and folly of us flawed human beings.  


One of many pencil-worthy moments in Steinbeck's novel is in a scene where the Joad family finally arrives in lush California from drought-stricken Oklahoma only to realize that they are far from welcome. While the land promises heaven, the people there make it a hell. On their first night on the California border, they talk to someone coming the other way and after hearing a negative report, Pa asks:


"Ain’t it nice out there at all?"


"Sure, nice to look at, but you can’t have none of it. They’s a grove of yella oranges—an’ a guy that got the right to kill you if you touch one. They’s a fella, newspaper fella near the coast, got a million acres."


“Million acres? What in the worl’ can he do with a million acres?”


“I dunno. He jus’ got it. Runs a few cattle. Got guards ever’place to keep folks out. Rides aroun’ in a bullet-proof car. I seen pitchers of him. Fat, sof’ fella with little mean eyes an’ a mouth like a ass-hole. Scairt he’s gonna die. Got a million acres an’ scairt of dyin’.”…


“If he needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ‘cause he feels awful poor inside hisself, and if he’s poor in hisself, there ain’t no million acres gonna make him feel rich…I never seen nobody that’s busy as a prairie dog collectin’ stuff that wasn’t disappointed.”  (Bold face mine)


Bam! That’s the next conversation American needs to have with itself. Our obsession with rags to riches stories as emblems of pride and the American dream to which we all should aspire needs to change. We need to begin to understand that from the perspective of justly sharing limited resources, no one should have a million acres and shoot those in need for plucking an orange from a tree. No one should have a billion dollars while kids wake up hungry. And especially when not paying back to the community in taxes. (In the 2016 debates, Trump boasted that not paying taxes made him smart and apparently, the people who voted for him agreed. )


From a spiritual point of view, we need to understand that it’s hollow inside. Just as we turned smoking from a cool thing to a habit of mild shame, so do we need to turn around our adoration of the rich and powerful and see the wolves of Wall Street for what they are. Empty souls trying to fill that emptiness with money and power, at great cost to their fellow human beings. Prairie dogs collecting stuff far beyond what they need and still feeling disappointed that it can’t fill their poverty of spirit. As Bob Marley puts it, “Some people are so poor all they have is money.”


So when Jeff Bezos spends 500 million dollars on a yacht, it’s both a crime against humanity and a confession of the poverty of his soul. While some young men (especially) are licking their lips and thinking, “Cool!,” it’s up to the emerging culture of care and kindness to shine the light on what’s really going on there. Steinbeck does, but what young kids are reading The Grapes of Wrath these days and who is guiding them to understand it? Who is helping them to see how those in need help each other out and those protecting the mansions on the hill hurt and harm those in need. There was another oral novelist named Jesus who spoke about this as well. But who’s listening? 


It’s time to get together to talk about money and resources. Shall we all meet on Jeff Bezo’s yacht?

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