It’s never a great sign when you finish a book and then immediately scan the inside cover to check if you picked up a mistakenly abridged version. Yet there I was, scanning over the last page of Steinbeck’s The Red Pony*, wondering what the hell happened.
I was comforted by the fact that the book is indeed “abnormal” in the sense that it’s serialized fiction. Back in the day, literature commonly came to fruition via installments published in magazines. Kind of like how you’d experience weekly television programming today. We should bring this back immediately, but that’s beside the point.
The Red Pony circulated as individual chapters from 1933-1936, and was published in its entirety as a novella in 1937. The first chapter is by far the most compelling. A young boy encounters responsibility for the first time, which is quickly and unexpectedly followed by his first encounter with mortality. The second chapter loses steam, focusing on a mysterious man who, despite his shroud of inexplicability, fails to hold my interest. The third chapter is slightly redeeming; it’s literally and figuratively pregnant with promise. The last chapter is rulllll depressing. It complicatedly condemns nostalgia and reminds us how much it sucks to get old.
Per usual, Steinbeck reveals his hard on for manifest destiny narratives, speaking of early 20th century America in a way that’s equally full of potential and disappointment. I love this about him, and I came into this work expecting a certain level of quality. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling it. I reviewed The Pearl a while back and praised Steinbeck for his lyrical rhythm and mastery of gender complexities. I also reviewed East of Eden and applauded his ability to carefully unravel a storyline and keep me attentive for 500+ pages. I mentally reviewed Of Mice and Men, and remembered how oddly gratifying it was to feel simultaneously sad and utterly complete.
Where does The Red Pony fit in, then? It’s simply not worth reading. When you have these other Steinbeck masterpieces at your fingertips, why bother with a story that’s a bit of a trudge to get through and unfulfilling in the end? Certainly, some characters pique my interest, but nothing is sufficiently developed. Perhaps this would be better as a longer-form novel. Either way, I give it 2 out of 5 camel humps.
*Steinbeck, John. The Red Pony. New York: Bantam Books, 1937, Print.