The book is initially kind of a shaggy-dog story (excuse me) of anecdotes, exacerbated by Steinbeck's claims that he doesn't know what he's learning or hopes to communicate by documenting his travels, that he doesn't really have a point here. It eventually becomes clear that he does, though; he's lamenting how America, as he sees it, islosing its spine, becoming excessively sanitized, and how its citizens are shying away from taking initiative and responsibility in their own lives, instead channeling that energy into disproportionate anger at scapegoats like the Soviets.
The final stretch of the book is Steinbeck going to New Orleans to witness a group of hecklers who're harassing a newly-integrated school, and we think: OK, here's where Steinbeck is finally going to find the courage he's been looking for in the U.S. - the civil rights movement. And then - well, Steinbeck goes off into a tangent about how some of his best friends (or at least childhood neighbors) are black and how neither blacks nor whites are really listening to each other and both sides are wrong, really, and black Americans want everything too soon. King's "'Wait' means 'never'" comes to mind. The story ends with Steinbeck mildly remonstrating a racist hitchhiker and kicking him out of his truck in what I think is supposed to be the book's climax, but invoking the civil rights movement merely as a springboard for a juvenile power fantasy is, well, woefully inadequate to say the least.
I listened to the audiobook from Recorded Books, and Ron McLarty's acerbic, robust narration added much to the proceedings, but, while Steinbeck is passable compnay most of the run, he reaches enough wrong conclusions to boot the book out of a recommendation. I did learn one thing, though, from Steinbeck's journey: his indictments of how America is losing its way, how there are no more Real Men, sound awfully similar to charges being made today, fifty years later - and fifty years earlier than Steinbeck's time, perhaps, and probably fifty years from now. The apocalypse is always coming, it seems, and yet it never really arrives.
(Note: Steinbeck's itinerary has been called into question; some charge that he couldn't have covered the ground he sometimes claims in the time allotted, or note that motel registers don't always match up with his alleged night-to-night accommodations. The most prominent detractor nowadays is the blog Travels Without Charley, an effort by a Pittsburgh reporter to retrace Steinbeck's alleged steps. The poor man, though, is perhaps the reporter least equipped in the entire country to tackle this task; he spends most of his travel time cooped up in McDonald's and Wal-Mart parking lots, deathly afraid to explore unfamiliar environs, and his visit to Montana, for example, is dominated by a trip to the local Verizon outlet, where he complains copiously about bad reception.)