Let Me Explain and Steinbeck

The second half of Let Me Explain is set in Monterey, California. I lived in Monterey for 18 months back in the early 1980s. If you spend any time at all in Monterey you'll feel a natural pull to the works of John Steinbeck. Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row are his best known works set in Monterey, and they were the ones most familiar to me when I arrived in August of 1981. By then, I'd been living in California for the better part of 4 years. And while Monterey is a unique expression of the California experience, the contrast between it and New England is much sharper. Harry Taft, the narrator of Let Me Explain, arrives in Monterey after a cross-country bus ride. It's his first, fresh encounter with the west coast in general, and with Monterey in particular. I tried to imagine the sensation of seeing and feeling that wonderful place for the first time. Harry's first impressions are below. When I wrote these and similar passages, I was aware of Steinbeck's towering presence. My aim was not to simulate his prose; my aim was to do justice in my own voice to a spot that has since my arrival had a profound, enduring, and even romantic influence on much of my adult life. I hope you enjoy what I've done.  

"I was a mess. I hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in about a week and, with the exception of a single shirt change, I had been wearing the same clothes for the last four days. I didn’t care. I was here in Steinbeck’s Monterey, and I wanted to see if there was anything left of it. The sun was bright and it was a perfectly clear day. I noticed that the quality of light is somehow different from the light back east; it has a crisp, blue quality with its own soft shades that would never come through in the thick light of the eastern woods.

"I sat on a bench down by the docks for a few minutes and looked out at the bay, at the dunes off to the east and north, at the jetty heading east into the bay, at the hills rising off to the west, Danny’s hills. The air was thick with the smells of fish and salt and strange plants I had never smelled in the east and the water sparkled with this new light of the west. 

"After about half an hour on the bench I grabbed my pack and started walking west and north, following the line of the bay. I came to a tired wharf packed with restaurants and shops. I followed the smells of steam and fish and crab and found a small, cheap seafood restaurant on the east side of the wharf. I had a quick lunch of chowder and crackers, and while I ate I remembered what I could about what I’d read, and as I sat by this bay I was still not far enough from what had brought me to this point. I was considering my lessons. No one sat near me, but the waitress was friendly enough.

"After lunch I continued on along the bay. I passed a slight, shallow beach just the other side of the wharf. About fifty yards out from the beach were a few small sloops tied to moorings. I followed a sidewalk through dry pines and around a small salient in the peninsula. Traffic passed on my left along a road that follows the wrap of the bay. I soon passed a large jetty, the same one I had seen from the bench. A Coast Guard cutter was tied to a pier along the jetty and the jetty beyond the pier was covered with seals whose lazy calls mixed with the Monterey light to produce an utterly new sensation of place.

"The sounds, smells, and light were welcome gifts at the end of my long ride. I found excitement without dread in the unfamiliar, in the nearly exotic. I found a strong surge of joy in the fresh aspects of this place haunted by nothing more than recent traditions to which it must still be linked. I wanted to use it all to scrub away my eastern decay, to be cleansed by things Pacific. At the same time, I ignored a strange sense of infidelity.

"I kept as close to the sparkling water as I could. I passed beneath the hill of some Army base, just to the bay side of another busy street that made me think of a Mediterranean dream. I headed down toward the bay again.

"By staying close to the water I found Cannery Row and some of its relics: the Chinese Market, Kalisa’s, and some closed tin factories, all surrounded by new traps replacing the fading dream. I kept on walking and I passed some sort of ocean studies institute set out by itself on a point. Eventually, I came to a village named Pacific Grove where it looked like the bay was giving way to the Pacific. I walked with the water on my right, along paths through more strange plants, past tide pools and dunes, by a rocky coast full of the smell of ocean life and death, until after three or so miles, I found the beach that sits in the title of Bardolph’s poem “Asilomar.” I walked over the rocks, past more tide pools, and onto the beach where I rested and watched the ocean."