While traveling home from SIBA in Charleston, Sandy and I decided to listen to the audio version of Of Mice and Men. I had never been exposed to the story before, other than perhaps seeing a skit about it on Saturday Night Live many years ago. Sandy had read it in high school but was fuzzy on the details, so it was a good choice for the trip home. We had both previously read East of Eden and loved it, so I had been hoping for something deeply awash in emotion and complexity when we started this book. Our audio narrator was Mark Hammer, and I have to say he did a fantastic job. His vocal inflections and the voices he created, especially in his portrayal of Lenny, were very skillfully done and lent the characters a whiff of life and believability that would have been completely missed had I read this in print.
Narrators and expectations aside, this was a tough book. Its length made Sandy and I think that it was more of a novella than a novel, but every utterance between George and Lenny was replete with pain, frustration and heartache. There were so many difficult emotions in this book that at times I groaned aloud at the emotional rawness that Steinbeck had captured. At times, characters would reveal themselves in a way that exposed their vulnerabilities and magnified their helplessness to such a degree that I became a little teary. There were so many characters that were grasping for acceptance and yearning for their worth and dreams to be realized that it was almost physically painful to hear all these encounters laid bare for the reader to see. There were some plot points that I could see coming from a mile away, and I’m not sure if that was because Steinbeck was just a master at foreshadowing or if it was because certain plot points have garnered so much attention over time that they were impossible not to have heard about.
George and Lenny had a very complex friendship. Because of Lenny’s limitations, George had to go beyond the bounds of friendship and become a pseudo parent to him, and this, more than anything, frustrated and angered George to a great degree. Sandy and I both felt that George wasn’t very nice to Lenny at times, and when he admitted to playing some cruel jokes on him in times past, I grew to dislike him. George was not a sensitive and understanding man, and often Lenny bore the brunt of his anger in a very real way. We both felt that George’s friendship with Lenny was not as altruistic as it first appeared, and questioned George’s motivations for binding himself so closely to Lenny. Was George in it for the right reasons, or was this a case of the strong subjugating the weak? After puzzling it over for awhile, I think it was possibly a mix of both.
Lenny, on the other hand, was innocent and naive, and his brute strength got him into all kinds of impossible situations. It made my heart haggard to realize that in almost every way, Lenny was a marginalized and ill-treated man who had no idea what he was capable of. I would have to describe his mental state as “simple,” though it was never discussed in detail. There were times that I pondered Lenny’s capacity for unwitting violence and I wondered aloud where in the world he might find a place where he would be safe and where others would be safe from him. I can’t say I found all this speculation to be enjoyable though, and most of the time I was very uncomfortable listening to this richly disturbing story. Steinbeck has a way of creating characters who seem to be living and breathing facsimiles of real life people, but in this book, the people who I was spending time with were damaged and damaging. Because of that, the book had a very dark and suffocating edge to it.