Ethan Allen Hawley, the protagonist of Steinbeck’s last novel, works as a clerk in a grocery store that his family once owned. With Ethan no longer a member of Long Island’s aristocratic class, his wife is restless, and his teenage children are hungry for the tantalizing material comforts he cannot provide. Then one day, in a moment of moral crisis, Ethan decides to take a holiday from his own scrupulous standards.
Set in Steinbeck’s contemporary 1960 America, the novel explores the tenuous line between private and public honesty that today ranks it alongside his most acclaimed works of penetrating insight into the American condition.
A darkly humorous and fairly depressing look at the failure of the American dream and the ill-fated pursuit of money. A witty and cutting narrator leads us through his daily drama as the town grocery clerk, and the doings of the well established families in town. While on the surface Ethan, our MC, is a fairly uncomplicated creature, we discover just what he’s willing to do in order to live up to the family name and the pressure placed on him by family, neighbours and society as a whole. Cynical, war-scarred and introspective, Ethan is a character you can’t help but root for even with his misdeeds and ruthlessness.
On an unrelated note, Ethan conducting a daily morning sermon to the groceries on the shelves is hilarious.
Hear me oh ye canned pears, ye pickles and ye piccalilli!
Some quotes that really stood out for me:
If the laws of thinking are the laws of things, then morals are relative too, and manner and sin – that’s relative too in a relative universe.
I guess we’re all, or most of us, wards of that nineteenth century science which denied existence to anything it could not measure or explain. The things we couldn’t explain went right on but surely not with our blessing. We did not see what we couldn’t explain, and meanwhile a great part of the world we abandoned to children, insane people, fools and mystics who were more interested in what is than in why it is.
To be alive at all is to have scars.
And if small crimes could be condoned by the self, then why not a quick, harsh, brave one? Is murder by slow, steady pressure any less murder than a quick and merciful knife thrust?
A brilliant classic.