“The past,” William Faulkner once said, “isn’t dead. It’s not even past.”
Thanks to the Strand Magazine, neither is literary treasures left behind by long-dead masters of the craft. Hot on the heels of unearthing short stories by Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler, the Strand has uncovered one by Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck.
Among Steinbeck’s many themes was the glorification of denizens that America’s twentieth century leaps and bounds left flat-footed — the forgotten underbelly of this country and their struggles for relevance as they fight for their elusive slice of the American Dream.
That only partially describes The Amiable Fleas, unearthed literally from a bank-like vault by the Strand just a few weeks ago. What a wonderful treat to be able to read something “new” by a true American master for the first time since 1962, when he published Travels with Charley: In Search of America. Originally published in 1954 – for the newspaper Le Figaro when Steinbeck lived in France — and written at the height of his powers, The Amiable Fleas stays true to what Steinbeck is best known for — albeit presented in a more, well, amiable tone of the working-class dreams of Cannery Row rather than the migrant hopelessness of The Grapes of Wrath.
Our single setting is the small restaurant of the title that has begun to gather significant notice and acclaim, to the point of even “beginning to be mentioned by the conductor of passing tourist busses.” None of this is lost on the restaurant’s proprietor, one M. Amié, who isn’t shy about admitting his obsession with the Michelin guidebook the way contemporary authors wax dreamily about landing on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s an interesting contrast to so much of the work Steinbeck is revered for in which his characters often ponder where their next meal might be coming from, as opposed to the number of stars enjoyed by the restaurant they’re dining at.
But Steinbeck also excels at portraying characters determined to destroy themselves at all costs, dash their own dreams before society does. So on the morning of the longed-for visit from a representative of that elusive Michelin guidebook, M. Amié loses his temper and ends up chasing off his beloved cat Apollo. His only recourse is to cook the cat a magnificent dish to lure him back to the kitchen in the form of a magnificent casserole that, in exquisite counterpoint, the Michelin reviewer finds utterly extraordinary.
“I applaud the dash of Bulgarian bitters,” he tells M. Amié, then seated with a purring Apollo snuggled in his lap. “But, my friend, the whole thing is tied together into one composition by a . . . what is it. . . there is a final greatness I cannot place.”
I won’t spoil the story’s end by revealing that secret ingredient. Suffice it to say that The Amiable Fleas is a sterling success of both style and substance, a light and effusive statement on the base simplicity of the human condition and the realization of elusive dreams via an unsuspected path. It felt a bit like the best of both Nikolai Gogol (The Overcoat) and O. Henry (After Twenty Years). Thank you, John Steinbeck, for penning this wondrous little tale and, even more, to Strand editor-in-chief Andrew Gulli for finding it.