I’m thinking of making this a thing. Every now and then, I’ll spotlight a book I’m reading that I think has some kind of mind-blowing quality about it. To be clear, though, this would not be a traditional review. I won’t be discussing the strengths and weaknesses of a book or giving a comprehensive analysis of the plot and characters. What I will do is highlight a particular scene, character, plot point, world building element, etc. that I think works exceptionally well, and say why. Since this is also from a writer’s perspective, it will focus on what I can learn from these elements in my own work. I’ll try to include a variety of books: science fiction and fantasy, of course, but also romance, mystery, classic and contemporary works.
The book I’m reading this week is John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. It’s the story of Steinbeck’s road trip across the interstates and back roads of America and his attempt to get re-acquainted with the country and its people. Steinbeck makes this journey in his converted truck/camper–nicknamed Rocinante–with his poodle Charley along for company.
There’s a particular scene about halfway through the book where Steinbeck stops in Chicago to meet up with his wife, who is flying in to visit him after he’s been on the road for a few months. He arrives at an upscale hotel at around 3:00 in the morning, and since his room isn’t ready, Steinbeck, exhausted, unshaven, and desperately craving a shower and a bed, makes an arrangement with the staff to temporarily occupy the room of a man who had to check out early. Housekeeping hasn’t cleaned the room yet, but Steinbeck doesn’t mind. All he wants is that hot shower and a few hours’ sleep.
He goes to the room, sits down, takes off one shoe…and suddenly, despite his exhaustion, his writer brain takes off and he’s captivated by the room and the man who occupied it before him. Steinbeck nicknames the man Lonesome Harry, and as he walks through the hotel room, he constructs a portrait in his mind of who the man might be, who the woman is that joined him in his room and left lipstick on the glasses and the cigarette butts in the ashtray, and whether they were happy together or lonely. In the wrong hands, this scene might read as creepy and voyeuristic at worst, or at best like a snippet from an episode of CSI. But Steinbeck, in just a page of description, establishes a melancholy connection to this man he will never meet, yet who becomes a part of Steinbeck’s journey as vividly as if the two had chatted over coffee at a roadside diner.
What do I take from this? The rooms we occupy in our lives–even the temporary ones–say a lot about us, even if we don’t realize it. The traces we leave behind, Steinbeck says, are like ghosts, echoes that can be perceived by people who know how to look for them. With the right description of a space, I can say so much about a character, even before he or she appears on the page.