I was prepared to compare Steinbeck to Faulkner and Hemingway, because those three tend to get discussed together - but what he really reminds me of is Upton Sinclair. Same powerful expose of the conditions of the poor and exploited, but you know how the problem with The Jungle
is that the story itself is pretty awkward? Well, this is better.
So I hadn't realized what a screaming Commie Steinbeck was. That was a fun revelation. And he's sadly prophetic here. He describes how small farmers get pushed out by larger farms, and then the larger farms buy, for example, canneries, and sell their own peaches to their own canneries at under market, to make the profit back with the canned final product, and the smaller farms can't compete and even more of them go under, and eventually there'll be nothing left but huge farms. And that's exactly what happened: nobody stopped it and now it's done.
So I really, really liked this book. I thought the characters were great, the plot grinding. For a while I wondered (back to the Faulk/Hem comparison) whether the writing style was a little simplistic, compared to the very stylized techniques those two used - but then, those self-conscious techniques can get pretty annoying in both cases. In the end it's maybe not so bad to have a guy who can just write a sentence without getting too caught up in doing it either the simplest or most confusing way possible.
(And it's not like the writing is graceless, of course. Just check out the first chapter: we open on a universe of dust that has to be consciously recalling Dickens' description of fog in the opening of Bleak House.
Beautiful, bleak stuff.)
Tom Joad is a character for the ages. Steinbeck is leaning on the mythic here: "Whenever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there." but it works because Steinbeck's good enough to make it work. Tom Joad's built for Bruce Springsteen to pick him up
70 years later: Steinbeck is creating a protest, and he succeeds.
And Ma, the unbending matriarch: "'You get your stick, Pa,' she said. 'Times when they's food an' a place to set, then maybe you can use your stick an' keep your skin whole. But you ain't a-doin' your job, either a-thinkin' or a-workin'...you jus' get you a stick now an' you ain't lickin' no woman; you're a-fightin', 'cause I got a stick all laid out too.'" That's some shit right there, huh? That's expressed in foreign terms, but we get the idea.
And check out my favorite character, Ruthie. That's a really sharp, fine, careful character description there, this little girl slowly going feral under circumstances that could take her no other way. It's beautifully done. Check out that allegorical croquet match. It's here where Steinbeck pulls away from Faulkner and Hemingway: Ruthie is a minor character, but Steinbeck draws her perfectly. Hem & Faulk don't have that attention to minor characters: they have more precise narratives. They wouldn't think to include someone who scuttles away and burrows under the story like Ruthie does.
Not sure where all the black folks went - this is almost entirely a white world - but for what it's about, it's got its shit together. Yes to this book and yes to Steinbeck. He's compulsively readable; he's about something useful and important; this is a great book.