John Steinbeck, Master of Terror

commentaries by Robert Suggs & rbadac

I. The Affair at 7 Rue de M —

Certainly Steinbeck's overlooked tale "The Affair at 7 Rue de M — " deserves to stand alongside The Grapes of Wrath & Of Mice & Men as a true American classic. But did we get to chew on this one in ninth grade English? Nay! High school lit seems dedicated to the proposition of scaring people away from reading altogether. For example, Charles Dickens wrote one really flat novel, Hard Times. It's the least characteristic of his works. So which novel is selected by the Miss Thistlebottoms of the world? You guessed it.

Now, I happen to love Of Mice & Men. It inspired those classic MGM characters, George & Junior, & this alone is enough to insure that John Steinbeck's name should be hallowed forever. But in "The Affair at 7 Rue de M — " we find genuine literary art: a tale that has some pop! It's pliable, it must be chewed upon thoughtfully, & it can be twisted in many directions until it bubbles to the top of the subconcious.

After it's consumed, it really sticks to you. In this story, disturbingly autobiographical as it would seem, an American author & his son John take residence on the eponymous street in Paris. (Eponymous — have I got that right? It means either "self-titled" or "a large, greasy & flatulent mammal with tusks"; I always confuse the two). The author is often distracted in his writing by his son's smacking of bubble gum. One day his son won't heed his warnings to knock it off, for he snivels that the gum is now chewing him. The night before, he affixed it under his pillow & kept waking with the gum happily chomping under his incisors.

Terrifying stuff, huh?

The father pries the gum from his kid's mouth, places it on the table & the gum quiveringly climbs back toward young John's toothy orifice. At this point, many things are tried. The gum is tossed out the window; it's hurled into the Seine; it's even abandoned way out in the country. But ultimately the diabolical candy always returns. In the end (don't worry about spoilers; gum doesn't spoil as far as I know), Dad places the gum under a bell jar & cements the glass to its wooden base. In a pitiful scene reminiscent of Lenny's death at the end of Of Mice & Men, the gum wastes away over a week. It turns rather pale, seems to expand & contract in a belabored-huffing way, & briefly leaps in hope when young John enters the room — only to fall back into despair as it realizes the impenetrability of the walls which have taken it captive.

Have some Kleenex ready as you read this one. After the gum breathes its last, it's buried deep in the back yard. Steinbeck concludes, "It is my hope that this account will set straight some of the silly tales that are being hawked in this neighborhood." Thanks, John. Miss Thistlebottom has seen to that for us. Please choose one of the following topics for your theme paper. It must be 500 words, not counting your name or footnotes. Please use ink & double-space.

1) "The Id as Gum: Radical Freudianism in Steinbeck's 'The Affair at 7 Rue de M — '"
2) "Like Father, Like Gum: Male Castration Anxiety in a Suppressed Steinbeckian Morality Play"
3) "Bubble, Bubble, Toil & Trouble: Steinbeck's Biting Attack on Post-Leninist Proletarian Labor Models"
4) "Bend Over, Junior: Rear Cheek Imagery in Tex Avery's MGM Cartoons"

-Robert Suggs

II. Saint Katy the Virgin

Rob has lost his mind, but that won't keep me from pointing out that Steinbeck has at least two genuine tales of fantasy. There's "The Elf In Angiers" in Pause to Wonder (Messner; NY, 1944), edited by Marjorie Fischer & Rolfe Humphries. Yes, it features an elf. It's three pages long, so a summary would vaporize it. Even an excerpt might puncture it, but here's a snippet of dialogue:
"Saints of Galway," said Reynolds. "Do you see what I see?"
"Yes," said Clark Lee.BR> "Well, do you believe it?"BR> "No," said Lee, who is after all a realist & was at Corregidor.
But the one I recommend is "Saint Katy The Virgin" from The Long Valley (Viking; 1938), also in the Ray Bradbury-edited Timeless Stories for Today & Tomorrow, a Bantam Giant from 1952. A plot summary would not do it justice, but this is how it begins:
"In P--- (as the French say), in the year 13--, there lived a bad man who kept a bad pig. He was a bad man because he laughed too much at the wrong times & at the wrong people...when Brother Clement fell in the mill and drowned because he would not drop the sack of salt he was carrying, the bad man, Roark, laughed until he had to go to bed for it..."
That's Roark, the bad man. Here's his bad pig, Katy:
"... You should have seen the face of Katy. From the beginning it was a wicked face. The evil yellow eyes of her would frighten you even if you had a stick to knock her on the nose with... now & then even a child disappeared and was heard of no more..."
A little later:
"... Well, Katy was a big pig now, & it came time to be bred. The boar was sterile from that day on & went about with a sad suspicious look on his face & was perplexed & distrustful. But Katy swelled up & swelled up until one night she had her litter. She cleaned them all up & licked them off the way you'd think motherhood had changed her ways. When she got them all dry & clean, she placed them in a row & ate every one of them."
The tale is only just getting rolling at this point & hasn't even reached the fantasy part, but that's all you're getting from me. And if that's not enough to send you scrambling for your Long Valley or your Timeless Stories or a library copy of Steinbeck's Collected, you are truly dead. "St. Katy" is absolutely hilarious, & not to be missed.



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