[2007-12-22] Steinbeck - The Moon is Down

Like many Texas public school students, I had to read Of Mice and Men in high school. I recall the story, and the filmic adaptation we watched starring John Malkovich, and in a general way that it was among the more readable of our required works and thus nearer the top of my list of favorites than the bottom. But what I remember most is my friend Wesley making fun of the book by rewriting the final scene to include George handing Lennie a live hand grenade crudely disguised as a cute little bunny rabbit.

Suffice to say that Steinbeck did not make much of an impression on me, early on.

In the more literate period that followed in my early twenties I managed to choke down The Grapes of Wrath. It was a difficult read, and although I don't recall if the thought occurred to me independently beforehand, I remember, years later, instantly recognizing the truth of John Gardner's statement that the book was ruined by Steinbeck's ham-handed characterization of California farmers as mustache-twirling caricature-villains rather than as what they really were--men who loved their children just like everyone else. This critical lapse was for me the difference between literature and propaganda, and it happened only at the novel's end, after I'd already read several hundred pages. Discovering only then, after the committment of so much time and energy, that I was the target of a political effort rather than the audience of an aesthetic one was too great a betrayal. I fully intended to never trust my attention to Steinbeck again.

Recently, however, a close friend recommended his short novel The Moon is Down. This friend, a co-worker, brought the book with her to a 3-hr final exam she and I proctored together, intending to loan it to me, and, because I had brought nothing else to occupy my time, I was glad to have it. I read at least the first half of the book during that period, with intermittant breaks to answer students' questions, and the time passed most pleasantly. The story was absorbing, the prose proficient, and the characters, though briefly drawn, utterly convincing. I finished reading that night before bed and when I was done the book's edges were notched with dog-ears:

The mayor looked steadily at her for a moment and his voice was sharp. "Madame, I think with your permission we will not have wine. The people are confused now. They have lived at peace so long that they do not quite believe in war. They will learn and then they will not be confused any more. They elected me not to be confused. Six town boys were murdered this morning. I think we will have no hunt breakfast. The people do not fight wars for sport." (10)

There was Major Hunter, a haunted little man of figures, a little man who, being a dependable unit, considered all other men either as dependable units or as unfit to live. (20)

And he said disgustedly, "I'm tired of people who have not been at war who know all about it." (35)

"And the girl," Lanser continued, "the girl, Lieutenant, you may rape her, or protect her, or marry her--that is of no importance so long as you shoot her when it is ordered." (99)

The Moon is Down is like The Grapes of Wrath in that it is overtly political, but unlike The Grapes of Wrath in that its politics do not interfere with its art. It is foremost a book about particular people in a particular situation, but it is also a kind of sociological or anthropological study that demonstrates, dramatically, how civilized, intelligent, kind, loving, well-educated people are driven to the horrors of insurrectionary and counter-insurrectionary warfare. There are no "villains," per se, in The Moon is Down; at each step of the way, we understand why the characters behave as they do, and even the most unsympathetic (Corell) is still entirely realistic. And here The Moon is Down succeeds precisely where The Grapes of Wrath fails. It is worthwhile to point out, also, that it achieves that success in 350 fewer pages, and moreover that it was written at least 3 years later (1942).

The Moon is Down begins with the occupation of a small village by an invading army. Except for a point midway in the story where a pair of characters escape by boat to "England," no specific nations or locations are given, but anyone with even a smidgin of history will recognize the invaders as Germans. For my part, I assumed the occupied town was French, but I read online that a more learned consensus places it in Norway. It does not really matter, as the story deals fundamentally with facts of human nature that are timeless and placeless. The villagers might just as easily have been Montagnard and the invaders Viet Cong. Or perhaps "Iraqi" and "American," respectively, make for a more timely example.

Like the invasion with which it begins, the story is a kind of sneak attack. The actual occupation of the town is over when the story begins, and the military details dispensed with in a few paragraphs. The first significant scene happens in the town mayor's residence and involves a meeting between the mayor and the colonel in charge of the occupying force. Everyone, conquerors and conquered alike, is agonizingly polite. The mayor is at first a ridiculous character, aging and hen-pecked and ill-groomed. His first major political crisis involves whether or not wine will be served to the invaders with breakfast.

Remorselessly, however, one thing leads to another: The invaders press the villagers to mine coal for their war machine, which is why they've come in the first place, and a hot-tempered young man attacks a belligerant officer with a pick, insisting that he is free and cannot be made to work against his will. Another officer comes to assist and is killed in the melee. Now the invaders must make an example of the young man, and do their best to implicate the town's "official" judicial apparatus in what is mostly a summary execution. This alienates the town officials who are unwilling to condemn the man, and makes an impassioned partisan of his widow. Food is rationed, and the initially lukewarm relations between occupiers and occupied freeze to a loathsome chill. The invaders begin to suffer psychologically from their isolation, which of course only increases their bitterness and hatred toward the populace.

Throughout the story the sense persists that these are more-or-less normal, generally kind people, and yet they are moved by social imperatives which are bigger than any of them and well-nigh irresistable. Particularly poignant is Captain Tonder, who comes to the young widow literally begging that they put aside their respective roles and simply speak kindly to one another. And she does speak kindly to him, but understands that ultimately what he asks of her is impossible. She seems to pity him, right up to the moment that she takes him into her bed and kills him with a pair of scissors. I will not spoil any more of the story, other than to say that by its end the surviving characters have mostly come about full circle, going from ridiculous to heroic or from triumphant to tragic as may be.

Lastly, a word about literary technique: Steinbeck is one of many great novelists who started out as journalists, and the prose and narrative "chops" he developed doing that work are well in evidence in The Moon is Down. Nowhere is his skill more memorable, to me, however, than in the characterizations of the various officers of the occupying force that begin Chapter 2. What caught my attention at first were his choice phrases--concise, evocative, and memorable. Only a couple of details are given about each man, but they are chosen perfectly. On reflection, however, what impressed me most about this part of the book is that it is impossible to predict which of the five officers described is going to die just a few pages further into the chapter. A lesser talent would probably telegraph something of his or her intentions given the same prompt, but Steinbeck succeeds completely--it really seems like he sketched the five men first, and only afterwards chose one randomly to die. I am reminded of John Gardner's sublime fiction exercise: "Write the paragraph preceding the discovery of a body."

Overall, The Moon is Down has impressed me so greatly that I've decided to give Steinbeck another chance. My father once recommended Travels With Charlie; that's probably where I'm headed next.

last modified 2007-12-22