Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

Book # 565

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


CRWhen I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men back in 2012 I meant to follow up immediately with this relatively slim novel.  Sadly I moved on and Cannery Row had to wait until now.

Let me start off the review by saying outright – I loved this.  Everything about it.  And my review may be overly glowing as a result.

The novel was first published in 1945 but it is set during the Great Depression.  Specifically it is set in Monterey, California and one particular avenue which is colloquially known as Cannery Row for it’s rows of sardine canneries*. It is the story of the locals on the Row.  Lee Chong is the local grocer and shopkeeper.  Dora Flood is the local Madam and owner of the misnamed Bear Flag Restaurant, where her girls are available to the local population.  Doc is a marine biologist who owns and lives in his workshop at Western Biological, and then there are Mack and ‘the boys’ – squatters in Lee Chong’s warehouse known as the Palace Flophouse and Grill.

The novel is barely a novel in the sense of having a plot.  Really it feels like a meander through the lives of these many and varied characters.  The thread that holds it all together are the ‘boys’ from the flophouse.  Mack, Hazel, Jones and Eddie pop up throughout and provide much of the entertaining reading.  But we are treated to vignettes of life amongst a range of locals, we are invited in to their lives and given an insight into the hard lives of the depression.

You would think that a novel set in the depression with the central characters being a group of bums would be, in itself, depressing.  You would be wrong.  Other than a few poignant sections, the joie de vivre that exudes from the pages belies the harshness of the struggle to put food on the table or a roof of some sort over their heads.   Steinbeck beautifully describes the lives and surroundings of these characters, so much so that you feel you can reach out and touch their them.  Here is how he introduces us to Doc’s laboratory:

Behind the office is a room where in aquaria are many living animals; there are also the microscopes and the slides and the drug cabinets, the cases of laboratory glass, the work benches and little motors, the chemicals.  From this room come smells – formaline, and dry starfish, and sea water and menthol, carbolic acid and acetic acid, smell of brown wrapping-paper and straw and rope, smell of chloroform and ether, smell of ozone from the motos, smell of fine steel and thin lubricant from the microscopes, smell of banana oil and rubber tubing, smell of drying wool socks and boots, sharp pungent smell of rattlesnakes, and musty frightening smell of rats.  And through the back door comes the smell of kelp and barnacles when the tide is out and the smell of salt and spray when the tide is in.

He continues to document Doc’s world in his library and kitchen, and then on to his person:

Doc is rather small, deceptively small, for he is wiry and very strong and when passionate anger comes on him he can be very fierce.  He wears a beard and his face is half Christ and half satyr and his face tells the truth.

And wonderful descriptions of this sort abound in this story about people.  But not to be outdone are the humorous pieces of observation, including this classic towards the end of the story when Mack and the boys (and entire neighbourhood) create a party for Doc:

The nature of parties has been imperfectly studied.  It is, however, generally understood that a party has a pathology, that it is a kind of an individual and that it is likely to be a very perverse individual.  And it is also generally understood that a party hardly ever goes the way it is planned or intended.  This last, of course, excludes those dismal slave parties, whipped and controlled and dominated, given by ogreish professional hostesses.  These are not parties at all, but acts and demonstrations, about as spontaneous as peristalsis and as interesting as its end product.

The humour exudes throughout the novel.  Even when the viewing is grim, there is the buoyancy of the human spirit, softening the edges and making the bizarre seem normal and even uplifting.

My edition is 136 pages long.  It’s not much, but it’s worth the effort.

Happy reading.

* according to Wikipedia the street that the novel is actually set in was Ocean View Avenue, but was later renamed to Cannery Row in honour of the story.

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