John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1980), 113pp
It's always a refreshing feeling when you read a short novella that is a fully-realised piece of art in itself, rather than just a poor man's novel. Of Mice and Men is all wheat and no chaff, and every scene, every line, every word from page one to the end has relevance for the story's conclusion. And what a conclusion - Steinbeck's ending has that peculiar blend of invoking both despair and hopefulness; the book continues to have an impact on you long after it has been read, and I fully expect that even years from now I will remember the conclusion and how it made me feel.
It is essentially a story about friendship and the American Dream. In Depression-era America, two men - George and his dim, gentle-giant friend Lennie - are looking for work and trying to save up enough money to buy their own farm, their own slice of heaven which would "be our own, an' nobody could can us. If we don't like a guy we can say, 'Get the hell out,' and by God he's got to do it. An' if a fren' come along, why we'd have an extra bunk, and we'd say, 'Why don't you spen' the night?' an' by God he would." (pg. 61). It's a quintessentially American pursuit of that universal human desire for individual freedom, but Steinbeck shows how it often remains just a dream due to various pitfalls. As one character says, "I seen guys nearly crazy with loneliness for [their own] land, but ever' time a whore-house or a blackjack game took what it takes." (pg. 80). For George, his pitfall is Lennie, the dim man-child (who, if this story was written today, would probably be portrayed as having special needs) who constantly (though innocently) sets them back. As George says, if not for the obligation to take care of Lennie, "I could get along so easy and so nice... I could live so easy and maybe have a girl." (pg. 7). But when Lennie offers to unburden him, George can't bear to part with him; their friendship defines them. Steinbeck seems to suggest that true friendship is the most important thing if one is to survive the pitfalls and setbacks, a lesson often forgotten in these times (as true today as it was in 1937) when it seems like "ever'body in the whole damn world is scared [mistrustful] of each other." (pg. 36). Steinbeck, on page 14, says that there are two kinds of people: those who decline from forging strong bonds with others, and consequently "ain't got nothing to look ahead to", and those who connect and give a damn about one another. This particular point is hammered home in Carlson's last words on the final page, reinforcing my point made earlier that none of the words, even those uttered early on, are wasted.
I fully intend to read more of Steinbeck's work, as reading this novella has shown to me a highly capable writer (there is a particularly powerful parallel in this book between the development of the George/Lennie character arc and the Candy/dog arc). It reminded me a bit of Ernest Hemingway's work such as The Old Man and the Sea - not in style or subject matter, as the two writers are rather different in that regard - but in their shared ability to say in a few lines what other writers struggle to convey in entire chapters. Of Mice and Men is a fantastic piece of literature and, given its short length and easy accessibility, I cannot think of a single reason why anyone should pass on reading it.