I first read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden about ten years ago, and at the time I declared it my favorite book. That was also about the time that I started formulating the first plot to my novel Idyll, and the sibling rivalries, daddy issues, and love triangles in East of Eden were (and still are) big influences on that book.
Upon second reading, I was surprised by how much of the book I’d forgotten in just ten years. In fact, there were only two things I remembered about the book. First, the story involved ‘light’ and ‘dark’ brothers, who are stand-ins for Cain and Abel. Second, the brothers’ mom was a sociopath with a beautiful face and a soul that is 50 shades of cruel, empty blackness.
That’s all I remembered, which means I forgot a hellalot! East of Eden is truly sprawling, and it’s like 4-5 novels rolled into one. It’s like the ‘A Day in the Life’ of novels, or AWOLNATION’s ‘Knights of Shame.’
It’s a grand retelling of the Cain and Abel parable. If there’s one thing you should know about East of Eden, it’s that. And after the black-sheep brother, Cain, kills his favored brother, he leaves his father, Adam, in shame to go live ‘east of the Garden of Eden.’ The Cain and Abel analogies are presented twice, through two generations of brothers in the Trask family: first Adam and Charles, then Aron and Cal. (Get it? A & C initials?)
It’s a semi-fictional history of Steinbeck’s family on his mother’s side. Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, plays a major role in the book. He was indeed a real person, but it’s hard to say how much of what is presented about him is true. Some of his sons and daughters meet tragic ends in the book, and it was interesting to think how much of that actually happened—and if it did, how it happened.
It’s a hard-boiled, murder-plot pulp story centered around a sociopathic woman who becomes a madame/dominatrix/extortionist.
It’s a memoir of the Salinas Valley, and a sort of oral history of America following the turn of the twentieth century: the optimistic rootlessness of Californians, the advent of the automobile, and loss of innocence brought on by World War I.
Here’s the things that struck me:
Who knew that such a popular book, written in the 1950s, would deal with such dark issues: abortion, pedophilia, and S&M. And boy, is there a good deal of prostitution.
Who knew that people love to fry chicken in tiny farm houses in the late 1800s. For some reason I only see fried chicken as an invention that came around at the same time as Spam. But one brooding, hermitic Trask brother fries chicken so much that a scum of grease develops on the ceiling of cabin. Gross!
Steinbeck has a lot of disdain for his golden-child, Abel characters. Those ‘light’ brothers are real douches. They are real Luke Skywalker-types, in that they are kind of petulant and have their heads stuck up their asses. The ‘dark’ brothers are the Han Solos of the story. And it’s been well established that Han is cooler. Case in point: When a movie of East of Eden was made in 1955—three years after the release of the book, James Dean played Cal.
Steinbeck is obviously a master, and it’s amazing at how deftly he can get away with flouting that old bit of writing wisdom, ‘Show don’t tell.’ There are many portions of the book where Steinbeck seems to be ‘telling’ for 2 or 3 pages straight. But is language is so lyrical and his insights so engrossing, that it is a beautiful, intimate thing.
This book is still one of the bests, and still one of my favorites.