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Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

February 2, 2015


It is easy to understand why Steinbeck is considered one of the greatest writers ever. He writes with the grace, elegance and ease of someone who is certain of his story. He doesn’t exaggerate its importance, belabor its themes or overplay its telling. His stories unfold as naturally as the hills rolling out across the countryside—each moment, even the unexpected moment, seeming like it was meant to be there, like it was already there, just uncovered for us.

Cannery Row takes place in Monterey, California, during the Great Depression, near the sardine factories. It is an episodic novel, about the people of the town who manage to get by through their neighborly bonds. Primarily, there is Lee Chong, a Chinese immigrant who owns the grocery store. Doc, a marine biologist who makes his living collecting specimens from the sea and mailing them off to places across the country. And Mack, the leader of a group of kind-hearted bums, usually plotting some way to make a buck or score some drink.

The plot, if there is much of one, centers around Mack’s attempt to throw a surprise party for Doc. But more than that, the book is about how a group of people who couldn’t be more different come to tolerate and then care for each other. Cannery Row evokes a depth of purpose in the mundane, significance in the every day. Much of the story is told in observation—looking across the yards, watching down the street, through the gossipy stories. We get to see not only how people are themselves but, more importantly, how they view each other. Mack watches Doc from across the yard and admires his smarts, his quality of character. Meanwhile, Doc looks up the hill at Mack and his gang and says:

Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.

The conversation goes around a bit, then shortly Doc continues:

It has always been strange to me. The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second…The sale of souls to gain the whole world is completely voluntary and almost unanimous—but not quite.

As if to say that all of this talk of values and people trying to find their way in the world the best they can isn’t to be taken so seriously, isn’t anything too special, Steinbeck places a conspicuous chapter second from last, in which he describes the daily routine of a gopher who has found a perfect place to live a life of abundance in a mallow field, but that he can’t find any female gophers there. So he is forced to move on.

I love this book. I can happily add Cannery Row to my list of favorites, joining Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley and The Grapes of Wrath.

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