Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Travels with Charley

(labradoodle, Travels with Charley, Steinbeck)
At the age of 58, John Steinbeck bought a new GMC pickup truck and had it fitted with a custom camper-shell for his personal journey across America. For companionship he took along Charley, a middle-aged French poodle, with whom he has many conversations as they travel together.

Their trip leads them from NewYork to Maine to Seattle to California to New Orleans and back to New York - from small towns to large cities to tremendous wilderness where they encounter the America of 1960,

It took 75 days for Steinbeck to make his 10,000-mile trip and 2 more years to publish his iconic road-trip book, Travels with Charley in Search of America.

They say that Charley was a literary device, but as you become fond of him, it's difficult to think of him as just a "device".  Steinbeck portrays Charley as a wise and precocious companion, protector and a means to connect with the people he encounters. Charley is described as:

 “…an old French gentleman poodle… Actually his name is Charles le Chien. He was born in Bercy on the outskirts of Paris… and while he knows a little poodle-English, he responds quickly only to commands in French. Charley… prefers negotiation to fighting, and properly so, since he is very bad at fighting...  But he is a good watch dog—has a roar like a lion, designed to conceal from night-wandering strangers the fact that he couldn’t bite his way out of a cornet de papier.”

Still much loved after fifty years, Travels with Charley in Search of America provides an intimate look at America as we stumbled into a dramatic decade of upheaval and enormous change. The book was published as a non-fiction memoir, which lately has come under much scrutiny for being "heavily fictionalized". Truth or fiction (does it matter?) this is a gem of a book and an enlightened portrait of 1960 America (or reflective portrait, depending on your age).

Now you're wondering how I've come to enjoy a book written 50 years ago about a aged writer and his aged dog wandering around America.  Truth is, I've come into possession of a semi-French poodle myself. Admittedly he's a French-Canadian, with a distinct French appearance (he could easily pass as a Parisian).

Forgive me as I blather on about how sweet, charming, sensitive, handsome, etc., etc., he is. I am trying, with difficulty, not to go on like an obsessing grandmother showing pictures of her all too perfect grandchildren while going on about how they "really are the most good looking, well-behaved,  above-average children ever born".  But here goes.

I acquired Buddy, the Labradoodle, as a young pup, about 6 months ago.  He was the one (of three young male doodles) that held back and didn't overwhelm me with kisses.  He was the smallest, shyest, and he had the curliest tail. When we got home he never left my side and he pretty much still doesn't.  I wont say he's timid, but he is cautious. For example, I think he encountered the raccoon that lives up in my second growth Doug Fir. I think this because he has refused to go into the backyard for two days and he keeps looking out the window wild eyed.  He once got caught unawares as the automatic sprinkler turned on - it took two weeks for him to venture out onto the lawn again.  If another dog looks at him sternly, he immediately positions himself behind me. I am his protector. It took a long, long time to housebreak him. He rarely barks and I've never heard him whim or whimper so I don't know what kind of watch dog he'll turn into.

He doesn't much like getting into the car, but he jumps onto my bed every morning to wake me up. He's a funny (happy and peculiar) dog and as Steinbeck would say, "...couldn’t bite his way out of a cornet de papier." 

And he really is the most good looking, well-behaved, above average (in many ways, but I don't think he inherited the poodle intelligence) dog ever born.

There I've written it - so, accept in passing, you'll never read another rant about Buddy. He'll stay in the background, but I have to admit I've enjoyed sharing him with you for he truly is a "good thing", and the Charley book is a real winner too.

Here's Buddy with Lucy the Bassett, his true BFF.

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