Johnny Comes Lately

John Steinbeck

Clinton, South Carolina, Friday, March 30, 2018, 1:32 p.m.

By Monte Dutton

Hindsight is supposedly 20/20, though I’ve often found memories to be considerably photoshopped.

For instance, it just occurred to me that I have something in common with John Steinbeck.

Hint: It’s not talent.

I’m not particularly modest. In fact, I’m not remotely modest. I think it’s hard to be internally modest and write fiction. Fiction is hard. It takes guts. It takes thick skin. That’s why the brashness is buried deep in the soul.

I doubt I’d be a writer if not for Steinbeck.

If I’m not mistaken – it’s one of those quotations that has been used by so many people, it’s hard to discern the original – Coach Jake Gaither said of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, “He can take your’n and beat his’n, and his’n and beat your’n.”

As writers go, Steinbeck was the equivalent of an all-around ballplayer. His classic works, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, used to intimidate me. I couldn’t write well if I was reading them. Steinbeck crammed more into a sentence than I could get onto a page. He paralyzed me a few times. I stared at computer screens.

But Steinbeck was not always that intimidating. He also wrote short, comic novels that made me laugh out loud. Cannery Row. Tortilla Flats. Lots were in between, profound commentaries with lighthearted moments. Of Mice and Men. The Winter of Our Discontent. I’ve devoured everything Steinbeck wrote. Collections of stories he wrote while a war correspondent. Stark tales of good and evil in which good didn’t always win. I even read a book of the notes between Steinbeck and his agent while he was writing East of Eden, which he thought was his masterpiece, and I do, too.,

(Steven Novak cover)

I just finished a weighty tome. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is a dark commentary on modern morality. It’s outrageous. It’s controversial. (Just what isn’t nowadays?) It’s amusing in places, but it’s not a pretty tale. It’s my best attempt to make what’s going on in the world seem somehow plausible. How did this happen? How did it come to this? It’s my answer to what in hell happened?

It’s important. It takes a toll. I’ve agonized over it. I’m agonizing over it now. Writing it made me a bit neurotic. I wrestled with it, and shaved a lot out of it. Then I rewrote what was left. Then I wrote a completely different ending. Then I read it again, and edited it again, and tried to convince myself that it makes sense. My editor thinks it makes sense. Whew. There exists evidence from one other person on earth that I’m not delusional.

It follows the course of fiction I was taking with The Audacity of Dope, The Intangibles, Crazy of Natural Causes, and Forgive Us Our Trespasses. Then I needed a break. First I wrote a long, but fun, tale of the modern West (post-World War II) called Cowboys Come Home, which was kind of my ode to another literary favorite, Larry McMurtry. It also gave me a chance to use my history degree. I enjoyed changing the brand of beer from Falstaff to Lone Star because the former wasn’t available in Texas in 1946.

Last year, I had fun. I wrote adventures about an outrageous young stock car racer, Barrie Jarman, called Lightning in a Bottle and Life Gets Complicated. I loved making up tales about Barrie. I’ll write another someday. I’ve just glutted the market for now.

(Steven Novak cover)

As soon as the current muddle – the audio version of Lightning in a Bottle is just out, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is about to be out in print and Kindle, and I’ve been (I hope) putting the latter to bed this very morning – is done, I’m going back to the next funny, irreverent, free-wheeling, first-person romp, which is now four chapters long. It’s about an aging baseball scout and his discovery of a diamond in the rough he thinks he can carve into a big-leaguer. It’s a perfect time to write it. Watching actual ballgames can provide me with ideas and inspiration.

Maybe, just maybe, I’m doing what Steinbeck did. It didn’t occur to me until I was wrapping up Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I didn’t do it on purpose. I did it to keep my sanity.

That could have been the deal with Steinbeck.

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