While the story of In Dubious Battle is pretty good, I found the book most interesting as a reflection of where Steinbeck was in his career when he wrote this novel. He seemed to have found a niche as an author of populist social protest and was lengthening his stride in preparation for his magnum opus, The Grapes of Wrath.
This one is similar to Grapes in that it deals with the mistreatment of migratory agricultural workers, though it goes into territory the longer, later novel doesn’t in that the main characters, Jim and Mac, really are communist reds. They’re not just accused of it, but really are party members. It would be interesting to think about Mac greeting the Joads just after Tom got his facial injury in Grapes. But anyway, to those familiar with Grapes, this book won’t seem as controversial, or as important, maybe. The story isn’t as gripping, the characters not as realistic as the major players in Grapes, but one can definitely see that Steinbeck was becoming angry with what he saw around him.
As someone who has tried to organize people into groups before, I found Steinbeck’s depiction of how individuals become groups, what works and doesn’t work to bring them together, to be very insightful. And, as always, his recreation of human speech is a pleasure to read.
In Dubious Battle is a good book. It isn’t Steinbeck at his best, but he’s getting there. It’s well worth the time to read it.