When I started reading this, the last novel written by John Steinbeck, I initially thought that I wasn’t going to like it. The prose was as fine as I expected it to be, but it seemed such a small story, compared to powerful epics like [b:The Grapes of Wrath|4395|The Grapes of Wrath|John Steinbeck|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1352912927s/4395.jpg|2931549] and [b:East of Eden|4406|East of Eden|John Steinbeck|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1309212913s/4406.jpg|2574991]. However, the story grew on me as I read and the ending packed a punch.
Mostly in the form of a first person narrative, the novel is about Ethan Hawley, a likeable man in his late thirties, married to a woman he loves and the father of two teenagers. Ethan comes from an old and formerly wealthy family in the fictional seaside town in which he lives. However, his father lost the family fortune and Ethan now works as clerk in a grocery store; a grocery store his family used to own. As well educated and intelligent as he is, Ethan has done nothing to reverse the family's precarious financial position. Until now, that is, when a number of circumstances conspire to make Ethan re-think his scrupulous honesty and integrity.
At its heart, the novel is a critique of what Steinbeck considered to be the decline in morality in American society in the 1950s and 1960s, something he also addressed in [b:Travels with Charley: In Search of America|5306|Travels with Charley In Search of America|John Steinbeck|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347394032s/5306.jpg|1024827]. Steinbeck wasn’t concerned with sexual morality, but with hypocrisy and corruption in government and in society generally. While the message is clear – and it’s a message just as relevant today as it was in the early 1960s - the novel isn’t a simple morality play. Ethan is portrayed as a good man. As he acts against his innate sense of honour and integrity, he remains likeable. In going to the dark side, even temporarily, he acts against his instincts and in many ways the novel poses more questions than it gives answers about greed, dishonesty, corruption and betrayal.
Anyone reading this novel who expects another Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden is bound to be disappointed. This is a small, intimate novel and it has its flaws. But it's a powerful work in its own quiet way.