Barich's search for America hits home


AMERICA AT LARGE:Ranelagh’s expat follows in the footsteps of Steinbeck

IF BILL Barich hasn’t been seen around the pubs of Ranelagh and city-centre Dublin of late, there’s a pretty good reason: Barich has taken up temporary residence on the back stretch at Santa Anita, where, after spending much of his adult lifetime in the company of fellow broken-down horseplayers, his ship appears finally to have come in.

No, he didn’t make a big score backing a longshot nag. Barich might be one of the most astute and analytic handicappers I know, but as a punter he tends to err so heavily on the side of caution he was never going to become rich – or poor – based on the whims of a four-legged animal.

But earlier this year the expatriate American writer got a phone call from California. To his surprise, given the modest commercial success enjoyed by the nine critically-acclaimed books he had authored over 30 years, the executives at HBO liked the idea of a racetrack-based mini-series he had floated, on spec, from Dublin, and wanted him to come out to Hollywood to put the finishing touches on a proposed pilot episode.

Nine months later he’s still there. HBO has ordered a full season’s worth of Luck, and signed Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte for its principal roles. With David Milch and Michael Mann, both of whom have shown a Midas touch, at the helm, the racing series will debut in January.

“If all goes well,” Barich wrote from California with word of his good fortune, “this gig, as opposed to my books, may keep me out of the Trail’s End trailer park in Santa Rosa.”

Whether the reflected buzz surrounding Luck will help focus attention on Barich’s latest book, Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America, published this month, remains to be learned, but one suspects that however widely it is read, Long Way Home may turn out to be as widely misinterpreted in certain quarters as was the half-century-old classic that inspired it.

In 1960, persuaded that he was dying (though he would live for another eight years) John Steinbeck set out to reacquaint himself with the land of his birth. Behind the wheel of a well-equipped camper he called Rocinante, after Quixote’s horse, and accompanied only by a French poodle named Charley, Steinbeck embarked on the 10,000-mile cross-country road trip he recounted in Travels With Charley.

It is probably not entirely coincidental that, two years after the book’s publication (and three decades after his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath), Steinbeck received the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Steinbeck’s book was subtitled “In Search of America”, and with the passage of time it has acquired a romantic if misplaced mythology of its own. Travelsis often recalled, when it is recalled at all, as a heartwarming travelogue involving a man and his dog, a view which tends to overlook the essential truth of the book, which is that in “rediscovering” America, Steinbeck was often disappointed in what he found.

Indeed, the experience of interacting with his countrymen occasioned such bouts of depression that he lapsed into periods of protracted silence. At one point Steinbeck (though only half-seriously) contemplated shooting his dog.

Barich’s narrative functions on a tripartite level. Initially, obviously, there is the parallel construction in which Long Way Homeconsciously compares Steinbeck’s experiences and reflections with his own as he takes the temperature and the pulse of the same ailing patient some 50 years later.

On another level, Barich, having spent the previous half-dozen years living in Dublin, finds himself exploring a grassroots America that sometimes seems every bit as unrecognisable to him as had been Steinbeck’s mind-jarring reintroduction to the common man.

Steinbeck’s journey was enacted against the backdrop of the Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign. Barich’s six-week journey takes place in the run-up to the 2008 Barack Obama-John McCain presidential election.

Steinbeck’s journey made allowances for mid-course corrections (halfway across the country he interrupted it to spend a weekend with his wife, who had flown to meet him in Chicago, at a sumptuous hotel), and Barich never considered himself obliged to scrupulously retrace Rocinante’s itinerary, although there are passages in which he revisits Steinbeck’s discoveries.

In the end, though, it is the differences in their approaches, rather than the similarities, that form the strength of Barich’s fresh appraisal.

When Steinbeck set out on his journey his camper was stoked with, notes Barich, “enough booze to float a fraternity party”. Barich equipped his rented Ford Fiesta with what he described as “the basics – a fly-rod, a sleeping bag, some hiking boots, binoculars and a first-aid kit, as well as my laptop, a cell phone, notebooks and a thick Rand-McNally road atlas”.

Though he often samples the local wines and beers when he stops for his dinner, Barich’s essential optimism and gift for self-amusement surpassed those of the master.

A quart of Kopper Kettle fetched at a boutique Virginia bourbon distillery lasts him halfway across the country. (Steinbeck might have polished it off in two nights.) When the annoyances of rampant consumerism, traffic, strip malls and the pervasive influence of Rush Limbaugh threaten to become overbearing, he is able to self-resuscitate his inner peace by wading into the nearest river with his fly-rod.

While indulging himself with the simpler pleasures, that Barich would encounter an America as disappointing as Steinbeck’s had been to him was somewhat inevitable. The trip takes place in the nascent stages of an economic downturn that remains with us to this day; almost no one he encounters believes the future holds much promise.

And, since he eschews major metropolitan areas in his exploration of Middle America, he places himself more or less by default squarely in the midst of a populace in which the lunatic hate-mongering of right-wing talk radio is often parroted as gospel truth.

Barich’s first book, a folksy deconstruction of back stretch life at a California racetrack called Laughing in the Hills,was cited by Sports Illustratedon its list of the greatest sports books of the 20th century. As a staff writer for The New Yorker,he could claim the distinction of being the first since AJ Liebling to publish a boxing story in that magazine. (Full disclosure: a Barich story called “Never Say Never” is included in the soon-to-be-published At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing,a book I co-edited.)

And while he has written everything from short fiction to an Italian travelogue, his forays into the field of sport – a collection called The Sporting Life, the fishing- themed Crazy for Riversand his discovery of the world of Irish racing, A Fine Place to Daydream– comprise an important segment of his oeuvre.

The point being that it is the sportswriter’s approach, if not the sportswriter’s mentality – Barich’s attention to detail and historical reference, his descriptive evocations offset by the factual, and, in the end, his obdurate refusal to be bored by anything – that set an ambitious book like Long Way Homeapart from others of its genre, including Travels With Charley.