John Steinbeck, The Long Valley

The stories in The Long Valley are sly. Their coloring may be Steinbeck through and through, but their tone is surprising. Sure, the men get down on their haunches and do some figgerin’ while the sun scars the black earth, but damnit! there’s humor in these stories! There’s suspense in these stories!

Steinback, Long ValleyThe Long Valley · John Steinbeck · 1936-‘38
Library of America, 1996 (The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings) · 205 pages, hardcover

Many of the stories in The Long Valley, namely “The White Quail” and “The Snake,” coax us to expect a certain ending, and yet, lurking on the last page or in the final paragraph, is a (usually very violent) surprise or a subtle turn of phrase that drops the floor of your stomach real quick.

If you thought you knew Steinbeck, The Long Valley will put you in your place. He’s a witty man approaching playfulness in these stories while nurturing that hardness he later exhibited in The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden.

The Long Valley comprises those stories Steinbeck wrote between 1936 and 1938, and its stories are emotional stories: rather than merely amuse, they’re purposed to provoke, emote and upset; to sicken, confuse and frighten; to disappoint with their strict adherence to a dour reality.

“Flight,” which chases a young Chicano into the mountains after he kills a man, feels most like Steinbeck in his later years with its odeic descriptions of the Salinas Valley and ruminations on what manhood ought to look like.

But for the most part, The Long Valley is a collection of more varied experiment, and above all it’s hilarity that stands out, maybe because we expect it least.

Steinbeck forced two clergymen up a tree and kept them at bay with a pig in “Saint Katy the Virgin,” a story that takes violence to a humorous level and with an ending that’s smug in its ironic slight.

Even when he tempered the comical with the sorrowful, Steinbeck surprises.

Peter Randall, the strong, lean, upright man of good farming skill (and vision: other farmers in the area rely on him a good deal for what they ought to plant) at the center of “The Harness” has always wanted to plant sweet peas, but his wife never allowed it: it’s a risky crop that could ruin a man though its flowers look so pretty and smell so delightful.

His wife’s death brings Peter release, and it’s a door-banging sort of release.

 I want 40 acres of color and smell. I want fat women, with breasts as big as pillows.

A little more than sweet peas was hidden beneath that sun-wrinkled skin! But a promise made in life is made sacred by the grave: “The Harness” shows a man’s lasting devotion to his wife, even when his libidinous desires get the better of him. Its moments of jocularity crop up unexpectedly, and that note of death’s sorrow runs through it more constant than its character’s disposition.

Other stories in The Long Valley couple the squeamish with the horrific.

A scientist watches in horror as a woman who’s heard of the snake he keeps comes to his research lab and demands to watch the snake feast on one of the live rats kept nearby.  “The Snake” is an interesting story in how it plays on our own notions of morbidity: the scientist runs tests on the rats, fish and other small animals for a college and it feels…not quite right (especially when we read that he keeps his lodgings only a door away in the next room). But the woman who comes to him with that queer demand – and then her vicarious participation in the snake’s feast, her mimicry of the fatal bite and her glassy-eyed ravenous stare – upends our previous feelings and makes us one with the scientist in our revulsion.

Some of the stories are a less gradual turn of feeling. In “Johnny Bear,” Steinbeck employs a village idiot like a jukebox, playing small town gossip for a shot of whiskey, and the barflies, gleeful and laughing at the lewd bits, turn shamefaced and rueful when nosy-nosy becomes knows-too-much.

“The Vigilante” turns a fired up rage, kindled from a mob’s ferocity and singleness of purpose, into a hand-wringing when a man’s participation in a lynching hounds him and leaves him trying to convince himself he did right when he knows he did wrong.

The last story in this collection, “The Red Pony,” is closer in form to the novella than to the short story, and although 10-year-old Jody is at its center, the passing years of the story bring him little maturation. It’s a coming of age story that harbors a great deal of disappointment, and its anticipation leads only to a glimpse of paradise on the way to Hell. Its quick turnabouts in emotion, replicated four-fold in a minor way through its four parts, make “The Red Pony” a fitting conclusion to this collection.

The stories in The Long Valley are a deft mix of cruelty, ribald humor and grin-and-bear-it morality. It’s John Steinbeck in his formative years as a writer. Read it.

The Long Valley · John Steinbeck · 1936-‘38
Library of America, 1996 (The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings) · 205 pages, hardcover

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