Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.
Cannery Row is even more than that—it’s people. It’s Lee Chong and Dora and Mack and the boys and Frankie and Tom and Mary Talbot and Henri the painter and the old Chinaman and Mr. and Mrs. Sam Malloy (and Darling) and Doc. Doc is as much the main character as anyone in the story. “And everyone who thought of him thought next, ‘I really must do something nice for Doc.’” Doc and his collecting really inform the whole story and provide a tie among all of the characters. Doc collects sea things as Steinbeck collects the denizens of Cannery Row—with understanding and absolution.
The vignette narration style allows Steinbeck to include dark elements while keeping the overall tone a notch above neutral. The undercurrent of darkness is, though, rather dark. In the first chapter, Horace Abbeville shoots himself on a heap of fishmeal. In the third chapter, William kills himself by shoving an ice pick through his heart. In chapter twelve, a famous writer’s entrails are thrown into a ditch and carried off by a little boy and his dog. In chapter eighteen, Doc is shocked when he finds a woman’s body in the reef. (“The eyes were open and clear and the face was firm and the hair washed gently about her head.”) In the twenty-eighth chapter, Frankie, a young boy with mental problems, is institutionalized for stealing a present for Doc, the only person who was ever kind to him. And, finally, in the penultimate chapter, a gopher builds the perfect home for a posterity of gophers, but cannot find a female to mate with, loses two toes on his front paw, and eventually has to move away “to a dahlia garden where they put out traps every night.”
The quote that perhaps sums up the book for me is: “There is no explaining a series of misfortunes like that. Every man blames himself.” As with most Steinbeck novels that I’ve read, I think the underlying message is that life is hard and heartbreaking, but people are resilient and will not only survive but proliferate.
Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck [rating:5]
Age 30 – A Year of Books