Cannery Row, John Steinbeck. New York: Penguin Books, 1992 (originally published 1945).
Summary: Steinbeck’s Depression-era narrative of the residents of Cannery Row, eking out an existence on society’s margins, and forming an unlikely community in the process.
“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.”
Steinbeck had me at this first sentence and drew me in with his ensemble of oddball characters–Henri the painter who has been building a boat for seven years; Lee Chong, the grocer whose emporium has a little bit of everything from every when; Doc, the marine biologist who collects marine life for research, and functions as a kind of doctor for the bodies and souls on the Row; Dora, the madam of the Bear Flag Restaurant where sailors and others could get far more than a sandwich from her girls; Mr. and Mrs. Malloy, who turn an abandoned boiler into their home; and Mack and the boys of the Palace Flophouse, whose exploits drive the narrative of this book.
For the most part, this is a group scraping by during the Depression. Mack and his boys might be described as “discouraged workers” taking odd jobs or even working a stretch at the canneries–just enough to get by and buy some cheap whiskey (“Old Tennis Shoe”) from Lee Chong. Eventually the boys get the idea to throw a big party for Doc, a sad man who listens to music as he reads at night unless he has a lady friend in, but who cares for delinquents, girls from Dora’s who get “in trouble,” and anyone else in need. The party ends up a comedy of errors. There is an elaborate tale of borrowing Lee Chong’s decrepit Model T, nearly getting run off an old captain’s property until they heal the captain’s dog, drink up his whiskey with him, and clean out a pond full of frogs they plan to sell to Doc to raise money for the party. The night of the party, Doc is recovering from finding a young girl’s body and doesn’t arrive home until the morning, to find his lab trashed, his record albums broken, and the remains of the party everywhere.
A pall settles over Mack, and the boys, indeed over the whole Row. Doc lashes out and busts up Mack’s mouth. But the boys are undeterred, and plan another party, at Doc’s place, of course, and all the residents get involved. How it all ends, I will leave for you to discover.
Behind the madcap exploits of Mack and the boys and their interactions with other denizens of Cannery Row, one gets a sense of what it was like for those on the margins to eke out a life during the Depression, how hard and sometimes tragic it was. This strange set of characters somehow help each other survive. Doc, the best off and most educated, shares the hopelessness of this group, finding a beautiful young girl dead in the water and finding himself unable to help a young delinquent he’d befriended. Like the others, he anodizes the pain in alcohol when books, music, young women, and his marine expeditions are not enough.
In the end, what seems to get them all through are the relationships, the bonds they form with each other in this crazy assemblage of humanity. There is no thought here of the possibility of a deeper Relationship or a Higher Purpose that can make sense of life. Nevertheless, this group of people faced with the challenges of their lives, decides they must celebrate a birthday, and in doing so that there is some meaning, some worth to their existence, because you never care about or celebrate something without worth.