Sodomizing Daddy’s Corpse: Thomas Steinbeck’s Down To A Soundless Sea
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/16/05
Yes, that’s right. And I’m not apologizing for the title of this review, for this book of so-called ‘short stories’ about the Monterey coastline of California is about one of the most egregious examples of the ignoble tradition of abusing and cashing in on a family’s literary reputation that I have ever come across. Yes, I know about Frederick Barthelme’s worming his way into publication on the strength of his big brother Donald’s name, but both brothers suck as writers. And, of course, there are the two talentless writing daughters of the two towering suicidal poetesses of last century’s Confessionalist movement, Linda Gray Sexton and Frieda Hughes, who have gotten book deals for fiction and poetry respectively, but neither woman is taken seriously, and neither was so blatant about it, although one might argue that there was some perverse justice in little Frieda abusing her psychopath father’s surname with her doggerel, just as he abused her mother in life.
But none of them have been so blatantly money-hungry as Thomas Steinbeck, the son of one of last century’s greatest novelists, John Steinbeck, apparently is. It seems that winning a ten million dollar lawsuit against his father’s publishers, for hiding his father’s profits wasn’t enough to sate young Steinbeck’s ego. No, he had to leverage daddy’s name to get a piece of utter garbage published. If there has ever been a more blatant example of the trifecta of literary sodomy, incest, and necrophilia rolled into one disgusting package, please- I do not want to hear of it. But, what’s most amazing about this all is how utterly blatant Steinbeck Junior is about his grab for a piece of the brass ring. Just when you thought that it was impossible for the state of American publishing to sink any lower, just when you thought that the bottom had been reached by preening phonies like T.C. Boyle and David Foster Wallace, just when you though that vapid self-help novels by Oprah-like PC writers such as Jane Mendelsohn and Zadie Smith were on the wane, just when you thought that the bilge that infests the published poetry world, like Donald Hall and Maya Angelou, were near death, someone even worse comes along. Enter young Steinbeck (well, he’s over sixty, but compared to his daddy ‘living’ qualifies as young). Tommy, as I shall call him from here on out, for that’s all this man-child really deserves to be called, in several online interviews, readily describes himself as a failed writer, a ‘Hollywood hack’ screenplay writer, to be precise, and says that he seemed to be satisfied with such a pursuit, until some fellow who wanted to get some local legendry into print asked Tommy if he could ride on the Steinbeck family name, and Tommy apparently was all too willing to prostitute himself for the purpose. However, if the online interview at this website, http://www.fwomp.com/Int_steinbeck.htm, is to be believed, they practically had to drag poor Tommy to the cash cow. Here’s how he says this collection all got started:
I didn’t decide to do a short story collection. It was actually Michael Freed’s idea. He’s a real estate attorney and developer for the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California. Bill Post, Michael Freed and I had attended the reburial of a Rumsen Indian near the Post Ranch several years ago. It was great, too. At least as great as reburying someone can be, if you know what I mean. There were Native Rumsen drummers and dancers and it was really a site to behold. But after that we went up to Michael Freed’s place high up a bluff in Big Sur that looked out over the Pacific Ocean. The three of us cracked open an ancient bottle of tequila and started drinking and telling stories that we’d grown up with and, at one point, Michael looked blearily at me and said, ‘You know, you should write these down, Thom, and put them into a book so we can get’em published.’ I was pretty dubious about it and wondered who in the hell outside of this area would ever want to buy such a book. But he lit a candle under my butt and I wrote all the stories out in about six to ten months and sent it to my father’s editor/agent in New York. He had some test readers look at it (with the cover torn off so they didn’t know who had written them) and they liked it. And I had poo-pooed the idea! Boy, you never can tell.
Several things are worth noting in this paragraph. a) The tales in the book are not even Steinbeck’s original ideas. b) The friend’s recognition of how easily they can cash in on Steinbeck’s name. c) Tommy’s own pooh-poohing that he could actually get published, as a nice ass-covering ploy. d) The whole blind taste test thing with test readers as another way to make it seem like he wasn’t cashing in. Since when, exactly, do publishers do ‘test readings’? Is this an unsure Hollywood flopperoo film waiting to happen? Is this a medium where we now gauge literary worth by audience likes or not, like the Nielsen ratings?
Even more revealing of the absurdity and bald cash-driven motive is this later section of the interview:
Interviewer: Do you plan to stick with writing short stories, or do you plan to switch to novels. Which do you feel is more rewarding to write?
Tommy: Short stories are wonderful! I love them. But they’re making me write a novel now. Oh well. Short stories are like little vignettes that can encompass just as much as a novel can, and they’re convenient. It’s kind of like writing poetry, too, or setting precious gems into a ring. Those little stories can be pretty damn powerful, you know?
Read that again. Yes, they’re making him write a novel? I wonder why? To simply milk the name. This is a man who has absolutely no idea how hard it is to break into publishing if you are unconnected and only have quality to offer into a world where bad writers who have a ready made name or celebrity to fall back on get offers for their pabulum. Note too, that short stories are his favored form because they’re convenient- read- easy and shorter to write, especially when all you have to do is transcribe the facts of a legend and let some mediocre editor shape them into something.
It might get your book with a brand name into print and sold, but it sure has nothing to do with literature. It might even get a fellow hack writer, like Pat Conroy, to blurb for your piece of trash:
‘Thomas Steinbeck writes with grace, authority, and passion. If John Steinbeck were my father, I would not have the courage to write a laundry list or a letter to the editor. But Thomas Steinbeck inherited his father’s great love of story. It is a grand thing to have a Steinbeck back in American letters.’
American letters? Unless old Paddy is meaning the big F.U. to readers, Tommy’s family name, and defenders of literature, he’s just pulling more shit from his ass! Fortunately, I paid only three dollars for this piece of garbage, at a discount bookstore that apparently got pallets full of this book that would not sell at its outrageous $13.95 original paperback price. And, yes, the transcribed legends, supposedly dating from the late 19th-early 20th Centuries, are shitty, as Tommy proves that while he may be an able typist, he’s no writer. But, there’s a reason these babies never saw print, nor took off into the larger American culture- even after this book’s sales bombed. They’re dull, and it says all you need to know about Tommy and his cronies that they actually thought this dull garbage was worth getting into print. What in the hell could intrigue such a mind? I shudder to think at such a delimited worldview! To give you an example of the level of his writing compared to that of his father’s, whose good name he has forever sullied, imagine a young Benjy Rilke, grandson of the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, inking a deal with Hallmark greeting cards, to write ‘poems’ along the lines of those Maya Angelou gifts them with. Or, perhaps, imagine a spunky young Dicky Picasso, making millions in the field of painting, by debasing his great uncle Pablo Picasso’s artistic name by inundating the market with godawful prints that make those of Thomas Kinkade, infamous ‘painter of light’, seem deep by comparison.
The truth is that I could barely recall the individual tales in Down To A Soundless Sea in the several days’ interstice between reading them and writing this review. Thankfully, I took some notes, so on to the individual pieces of dung:
The Night Guide: this first tale is about a boy named Frank Post (of a supposedly famous local family and ranch). He’s a half-breed Rumsen Indian. His mother, a full blood, is missing one night during a thunderstorm, and Frank has a vision of where she is. He shows superhuman, or supernatural, strength in lifting a fallen tree off of her and becomes a legend. mother from underneath a downed tree. The boy becomes somewhat legendary because of his heroic deed, yet there isn’t an ounce of humanity in the tale. The characters are like soulless pawns from a bad Robinson Jeffers epic poem.
The Wool Gatherer: As if a reader is unsure of Tommy’s lineage, this tale follows a character named John who is revealed, by tale’s end, to be none other than Tommy’s daddy, the revelation of which is the only reason this tale exists. John works summers at the Post Ranch in Big Sur, and, on his way there, he sees a legendary beast glaring at him from a cliff, a possibly extinct bear. The rest of the tale follows John’s pursuit of this modern Questing Beast, which he never sees again, and which causes him to not earn a cent during the summer, and end up being ridiculed. The actual ‘wool gathering’ of the title refers not to shearing sheep, but to a then current expression for daydreaming.
Blind Luck: While the first two tales show Tommy has no idea how to do any more than put a word in front of another, this seventy page abomination shows he has no clue how to structure a story, for there is nothing in this story that could not have been told in four or five pages, tops. An unloved boy named Chapel Lodge is dumped by his parents, grows up, becomes a sailor, suffers the rites of passage expected in such a tale, learns responsibility and teamwork (yea!), and becomes involved in a famous ship sinking near Point Sur, the survival of which only propels him on to his paltry dreams, despite being partly blinded.
An Unbecoming Grace: At forty-four pages this is not as egregious a waste of time as the previous tale, but follows a local doctor named Roberts, a prototypical good doctor, in his dealings with a difficult patient named Old Stoat, the patient’s young wife, Mary Rose, and his own effect on the lives of others. He is always on call, wholly selfless, and has an endearing horse named Daisy. In short, this is John Steinbeck meets Norman Rockwell, as much of the book is, until the predictable end, where the old man is driven off a cliff by the young wife’s new lover, and the lovers live happily ever after. Ok, Steinbeck meets Norman Rockwell meets Robinson Jeffers- and it still sucks big time!
The Dark Watcher: Ostensibly this tale is supposed to be the one that shows of Tommy’s mystical chops, and affinity with local Indian culture. A professor named Solomon Gill tries to find out about the ancient tribes that used to live in the hills of Big Sur. One day he sees a dark figure just ahead of him, and it’s always just beyond him on. Ooh, scared yet? Don’t be. Not a thing happens. I mean it. Not a thing literally occurs that shows any reason for this tale to exist- there is no expansion on the presumably real myth behind this tale, and there is no invention shown by Tommy, save for how to work in the name of his grandmother, Olive Steinbeck, into the tale.
Blighted Cargo: Follows a nasty SOB named Simon Gutierrez O’Brian (gotta love how Tommy throws in that PC curveball- a Mick and a greaser as bad guy. Oh wait, that’s racist, right?) who’s involved in all sorts of illegal activities in the mining business, and others, including slavery. Yes, he gets his comeuppance.
Sing Fat And The Imperial Duchess Of Woo: This longest tale, at ninety four pages, follows a Chinese peasant, fallen from royalty, who emigrates to America, scrimps to save money, then becomes an apothecary’s assistant, and falls in love with a beautiful widow named Sue May Yee, and has a lifelong bond with a cat, the other titular character.
In short, Tommy is not a writer. It would be too easy to state that he was a bad writer because his writing is utterly styleless. Yes, he is trite, but the dominant reason for his writing’s horror is that while the clichés pop up here and there, at merely the worst places (usually the tales’ ends, or during storms or moments of crisis) his stylelessness suffuses the whole, on every goddamned page. He simply puts words one after another, with no sense of their groove nor fit. On the face of it, this may seem marginally better than the bland PC ravings that dominate ‘award-winning’ fiction and poetry today, but it’s not. Here’s an excerpt from the first tale, The Night Guide, that shows how utterly generic and without style his writing is:
Sadly, every mortal creature that made the rugged coast a refuge suffered
from the shattering blows of an outraged sea. Cresting rollers twenty feet high
and two miles long mined into the impenetrable cliffs and rocks for days on end.
Inevitably, every rookery, bower, haul-out, and nesting sight on the Monterey
coast was swept away. The corpses of every known species of coastal life
littered what shore there was left. The sharks enjoyed abundance for days after
The evidence of destruction was to be had from all quarters. Salmon Creek to Santa Cruz reported roads, byways, and trails strangled in mazes of uprooted and shattered trees. The prodigious rains, sometimes so heavy and horizontal that simple breathing became hazardous, drilled the soil so incessantly that broad landslides were abruptly carved from the mountainsides. Several large rockslides unalterably isolated the more remote mining claims.
It was during a blessed lull between the repetitive coastal tempests that Boy Bill Post moved his wife from Monterey to a newly purchased piece of land bordering Soberanes Creek. His land formed a part of the old San Jose y Sur Chiquito land grant, and he had fixed it in his mind that his acres would be prime for cattle. There appeared to be abundant grazing in the hills and pastures, and the splendid ocean views gave him constant pleasure.
I wonder just how much test reader feedback was needed to compel Tommy to add such unnecessary and trite modifiers such as mortal, rugged, shattering, impenetrably, etc. Sadly, this elementary school level prose goes on for 283 pages.
Yet, the lack of style in the writing is only one element of the book’s horror. He has absolutely no ability to give any depth to characters. The bad guys are irredeemably bad, the good guys noble to a fault, and the inevitable tragic ends of some of the tales are seen coming from pages away, yet, of course, good always wins, and the endings indulge the worst clichés of drama and in actual phrasing. The whole book smacks of the worst sort of cynicism, as displayed above by Tommy’s own disgusting avarice. The tales are tenth rate versions- no apings- of his father’s works, with pallid imitations in character, and no idea of how to resolve the putative narrative dilemmas, despite these being supposed legends Tommy merely transcribed. Of course, a dramatic thunderstorm always seems a good way of adding melodrama to cover the fact that nothing really occurs in these overstarched formulaic tales. Tommy is utterly incapable of insight, and totally void of even a hint of wordsmithing talent. He often mistakes quantity for quality, so writes very long tales that are, surprise, not overwritten for that implies many words and a far too dense mish-mash of plots points, character traits and the like. Incredibly, even in seventy or ninety plus page stories the tales are remarkably underwritten. There are just a lot of words, pointless, not a thing more. The very idea that less could mean more is beyond his avaricious ken.
Think of the scene at the end of Tommy’s dad’s masterpiece, The Grapes Of Wrath, where, out of the blue, Rose of Sharon feeds a starving man on her breast milk. Not only does that scene complete her character, but it leaves an indelible final image in the mind of the reader. Tommy could stroke himself or his keyboard for a thousand years and never concoct a scene with a fraction of that one’s power nor originality. About the only element of any tale in the book that could be called even mildly intriguing is the dark watcher from the tale of the same name, yet even that smacks of plagiarism from his own father, in a story called Flight, which had similar shadowy figures looming. Tommy’s dad was a great writer, who wrote his characters from the inside out, Tommy’s characters are written from the outside in. Then again, I guess that’s the essence of transcription. It’s just that not only are their ‘writing’ inclinations in opposition, but Tommy’s outside in writing displays his utter blindness, and the fact that he is looking inside his own barren talent, not his father’s cornucopia. But, even his father would have difficulty making these banal, pointless legends even mildly interesting, much less a good read. Of course, Tommy has tried to state that these tales are meant to be ‘read aloud’ not in book form, to appreciate them most. Well, go ahead, read the above quote aloud and show me the poesy, the alliteration, assonance, derring-do, bravado….whoops! He also mentions that he did rigorous research on the sayings and slang of the times. This sort of ‘historically accurate’ claim inevitably is used as an excuse for really bad stories- as if historical accuracy and good narrative are mutually exclusive properties of storytelling, or that anyone gives a rat’s ass about the historical accuracy of anything if the actual story brings them apports of pleasure?
I’d love to say that this pabulum would never have gotten published were Tommy’s surname not Steinbeck but I know better. Worse writing, in other ways, has already gotten published, and lauded, but that still doesn’t excuse the vomitus that Tommy has wrought. Such is the degraded state of current American literature.
Yes, there is no denying that the existence of this book, and whatever piece of dreck Tommy is concocting for his Great American Novel, is nothing short of literary sodomy, as well incest and necrophilia, and sickens me even more than the far more widespread practice of literary fellatio (in the flesh and in print) that results in so many non-talents landing book deals, only to have their defecations sitting on the shelves of clearinghouse book distributors, next to Tommy’s dreck, for at least their ‘come and swallows’ do not involve desecrating the name of a great writer. Still, one wonders what the real dark motives are that Tommy has for brutalizing his father’s name to such a shameful degree. It never ceases to amaze me how base, cynical, disrespectful, uncaring, and money hungry people can be. If I had any doubts how low individuals could sink I only have to turn toward old Tommy Steinbeck.
Let me end this review by requesting two things. First, for the readers who are as sick and tired of bottomfeeders like Tommy constantly lowering the Lowest Common Denominator bar of American culture as I am, please go to Tommy’s own personal little website, http://www.thomassteinbeck.com/, and send him an email telling him what you think of his bad writing, and worse degradation of his father’s name. Second, I beseech old Tommy to show a modicum of decency and restraint, and forego being ‘made’ to write a novel. You have no talent, Tommy! You’ve got ten million smackeroos in the bank; ok, perhaps a third of that after lawyer’s fees and taxes, but that’s still more than 99.9% of us will ever have, and you’ve done absolutely nothing to earn it, save being the winner of the very first contest you were ever in- being the lucky one of your dad’s little fishies that made it to your mom’s ovum first, rather than dying midstream, or drying on her thigh. Please, for literature’s sake, show some class and never write again. Or, if you do, at least do something right and dramatic, and do what Frieda should have done: turn the valve, open the oven door, and breathe deeply! Bless you, my son.
Return to Bylines