American author Bill Barich, a resident of Ireland these past nine years, was rummaging through a local secondhand shop in the summer of 2008 when he stumbled across a "beat up old copy" of "Travels With Charley," John Steinbeck's late-in-life attempt in 1960 to reacquaint himself with his native country.
The book is a sour look at the American people as Steinbeck, in failing health, succumbed to pessimism over the caliber of his fellow citizens and their embrace of a culture built on the plastic and the contrived. Which was not how Barich had remembered "Travels With Charley."
"I hadn't read it since I was a teenager, and I was feeling nostalgic about America," says Barich, 67, who had moved to Dublin to live with his partner, artist Imelda Healy. "I started reading it and I was absolutely startled that it was such a dark book."
So Barich, a former New Yorker staff writer, Guggenheim fellow and literary laureate of the San Francisco Public Library, did what writers do. He began digging into a collection of Steinbeck letters for clues to why the Nobel-winning author of "The Grapes of Wrath" and other classics had developed such a negative view of his fellow Americans.
Barich was surprised to discover Steinbeck's private opinions were even sharper than what he had published.
"I found all these amazing things, particularly to his editor," Barich says. "He said, I can't put this stuff in the book, what I truly feel about America. The country is falling apart. People only care about material things. It's like a corpse filled with gas and when it explodes I hate to think what the result would be."
Barich decided to "put Steinbeck's prophecy to the test, and go out and see how accurate he was 50 years after the fact." The result is "Long Way Home," a nonfiction account of Barich's own travels through the heart of America during the 2008 presidential election.
It was a dream project for a nonfiction writer — a few weeks on the open road with a loose itinerary and a license to indulge personal curiosity. And the project fit in neatly with some of Barich's previous works, including his 1980 debut "Laughing in the Hills," in which he immersed himself in the Bay Area's Golden Gate Fields horse track, and his 2009 book, "A Pint of Plain," about his search for the quintessential Irish pub.
For "Long Way Home," Barich spent six weeks on the road and then another nine months back in Ireland writing. The book is part travelogue, naturally, but it's also a series of ruminations by a writer with liberal inclinations trying to fathom the conservative heart of his home nation — and also to understand the occasional mood of passivity among people who were often easily riled by political manipulations.
Where Steinbeck's route loosely followed the country's perimeter, Barich decided to bisect America, roughly following the east-to-west path of U.S. 50, which begins in Ocean City, Md., and ends in West Sacramento. Barich, though, strayed far, wide and often, and veered off course for good once he hit central Utah. He figured he already knew the Nevada deserts so he opted to cut south, passing through Needles, then hitting the Orange County coast before heading north to San Francisco.
When Steinbeck set out, he ostensibly planned to talk with Americans everywhere he went.
But Barich believes that, after loading up his camper with booze at the start of the trip, Steinbeck spent most of his time alone with Charley, his standard poodle and traveling companion. (Barich made his trip without a canine sidekick, though whiskey was occasionally involved.)
"He was extremely depressed, in really bad health and I'm fairly certain that he made up most of the book," Barich said of Steinbeck. "When you read the book, you can see he's sitting in the camper with the dog and having a few pops. When you read between the lines, he really was a dying man. That was the tough thing, to try to separate the mood of the traveler from the fact of what he saw."
Barich stayed in hotels. And he went out of his way to talk with people, visiting barber shops as the traditional measuring spot of the pulse of a community, buttonholing fellow fishing enthusiasts, pawnbrokers, small-store owners and folks on barstools next to him.
He found a nation riven by politics, but also grappling with financial insecurity, and fears for individual futures.
He also found small towns struggling to retain their own identities in a culture dominated by chain stores and restaurants. Especially in the heartland, he found a sense of self-delusion.
"To go from West Virginia all the way through rural Ohio and Indiana you see pretty much nothing but white people," Barich said. "It's a weird phenomenon where these tiny towns are so fixed in the past they seize on themselves as 'All-American' when in fact they're not. By 2042, according to the Census, the minorities will be the majority. So California is the harbinger."