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The Village Voice
By Tony Ortega
Tuesday, August 12th 2008
Six years ago this summer, the Native American novelist drove his pickup truck to Albuquerque’s airport and parked.
It had been some years since I’d spent much time with him. We’d stopped sending letters and e-mails. I don’t know how long he’d been depressed or why. Recognition for his novels was growing; he won the American Book Award in 1997 but he never seemed entirely satisfied with them. He was also somewhat restless about the universities where he taught, and had moved away from the University of California at Santa Cruz, where I’d met him, after amassing a following of fanatically admiring students. In 2002, he was splitting time between his job at UC Davis and a home in New Mexico, where he had once taught and where his wife and daughters lived. Was that it? Was it loneliness? Or the sense of failure that seemed to dog him, even as his fame was growing? One of his oldest friends has written that Louis was suffering from the effects of antidepressants at the same time that he was taking painkillers for a knee injury that had seriously curtailed his ability to enjoy the outdoors, which had been central to his life. A drug cocktail exacerbating a growing depression over advancing age and inevitable decrepitude? Perhaps that was it.
I really don’t know what was in his mind as Louis pulled out a pistol there in his pickup truck, aimed it at his chest, and pulled the trigger.
He died at a hospital the next day. He had just turned 54.
I was shocked and angry when I heard about it from another former student. In the years since, I’ve thought about Louis often, wishing that I’d stayed in closer touch, as if that might have helped him or at least helped me understand his decision. But I also assumed that mine was a typical reaction, and that hundreds of other former students around the country whose lives were changed by the man must have felt the same way.
Today, respect for his novels seems to remain strong in academia, though he’s rarely mentioned outside of it. But the first was published when we were already close. I’d known him for a very different reason: as one of the country’s foremost authorities on Central California’s own John Steinbeck. There was no better place to study the author than in “Steinbeck Country,” and with Louis Owens.
At that time and place UC Santa Cruz in the early 1990s, at the height of the campus culture wars it felt somewhat reactionary to take an interest in the local dead white guy whose novels had actually been Book of the Month Club selections. But when you were around Louis, it was easy to develop a fascination for the Salinas Valley’s favorite son.
It was with Louis that I first visited Steinbeck’s boyhood home in Salinas and peeked at the Pacific Grove bungalow where he wrote The Grapes of Wrath, pondered the Monterey intersection where Doc Ricketts (immortalized in Cannery Row) was killed in a collision with a train, drove out to the Spreckels sugarcane factory where Steinbeck had worked during his summers away from Stanford, and stared humbly at the author’s Salinas grave.
And it was Louis, encouraging me to do serious scholarship on Steinbeck, who set me on an adventure that had a result neither of us could have predicted.
Louis had challenged me to investigate a question that he’d wondered about for a long time. Why, he asked, had Steinbeck turned the mostly Mexican workers of the Great Cotton Strike of 1933 into a bunch of white Okies in his strike novel, In Dubious Battle?
Four of Steinbeck’s first five books (two of which weren’t actually published until later) had each prominently featured Mexican or Mexican-American characters. Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck’s first actual success, soon had tourists coming to Monterey hoping to see the paisanos drinking and carrying on. Steinbeck had grown up around the Mexican workers of Salinas Valley and admired them; his affinity for Mexico would later lead him to make films there.
After Tortilla Flat‘s surprising success, his publishers would have been thrilled with further tales of Monterey layabouts. Instead, Steinbeck gave them the grimmest book imaginable.
In Dubious Battlethe title is drawn from Milton’s Paradise Lost, with the forces of God and Satan ranged “In dubious battle on the plains of Heaven”follows two Communist organizers as they attempt to rouse the peach pickers of a fictional valley in Central California. One of the organizers is young and idealistic, and he is repeatedly shocked by the cynical and manipulative ways of his older colleague. Told in a naturalistic style, In Dubious Battle feels remarkably real which isn’t surprising, because Steinbeck based much of it on an actual labor struggle.