Cannery Row by John Steinbeck.

I haven't read Steinbeck in years and that's for a fairly weak reason: I've read several Steinbeck novels, The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, and Grapes of Wrath as well as the delightful Travels with Charley, and every one of them was as close to perfect literature as I can get. As they say, even Homer nods, and so do our favourite authors, and I really was not relishing the moment I sat down to read some Steinbeck and discover that even Steinbeck nods. But, I've had enough of not reading Steinbeck and my reason for not reading him is frankly ridiculous, so I've got seven of his works on my new Classics Club list and Cannery Row (1945) is the first one, and the first Steinbeck I've read since 2013 (so long ago I had to check my old blog to find that out).

I'm happy to start by saying that John Steinbeck did not nod in Cannery Row. This is a short novel set in a waterfront street in Monterey, California, a nickname for what was once known as Ocean View Avenue (in honour of Steinbeck it is now known as Cannery Row). Steinbeck describes it in the preface:
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. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches," by which he meant Everybody, Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, "Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men," and he would have meant the same thing.
This novel is about Cannery Row, not just what happens to occur on the avenue, nor just a random setting for a snapshot of 1930s America during the Great Depression: one does get all of this, but above all else the novel is about the actual avenue and its inhabitants. It is home of a variety of characters: those that stick out are Lee Chong, the owner of a grocery store described as "a miracle of supply", local madam Dora Flood, Mack, Eddie, and Hazel, three contented unemployed men living in the Palace Flophouse, and Doc, a marine biologist. The plot, such as it is (it's quite loose), is that Mack and his friends decide to cheer Doc up and do something nice for him, and after a few failed attempts they finally get somewhere. The real part of the novel for me is the community and the setting that unites them. Through little vignettes we learn about each character and their lives, thoughts, and attitudes on any given day without any great drama or event. Cannery Row is just life, or a part of it at least. The characters are seen through the eyes of others, and their stories and history, and in such a short space Steinbeck builds a picture of a spirited community with real people, characters who don't conform or even relate to their stereotypes. 

Cannery Row is a great achievement and in its way it reminded me of the modernism we see in Woolf and Joyce, but Steinbeck is far more approachable. Like Ulysses it captures and embodies a sense of joy and spirit. That's not to say it's a light novel, there are some dark themes with in it, but the novel is a celebration of all that life has to offer, the good and the bad. It's a warm, often humorous, and keenly observed work proving Steinbeck's great genius.

Comments

  1. when very young, i celebrated my numerous readings of Cannery Row and Tortilla Flats by almost getting myself thrown in the clink, there in Monterey... entirely too much liquid enthusiasm... wonderful books, and just too liberating for young adults, imo... of course, it was most likely just me; hard to imagine all that now; such a long time ago...

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    1. That's brilliant! Possibly didn't feel so brilliant at the time, mind... :)

      I'm going to read Sweet Thursday next and then Tortilla Flats I think. Not read either yet...

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  2. I'm hoping to read more Steinbeck this year. I've got Tortilla Flats and East of Eden at the top of my list. I also need/want to read The Grapes of Wrath. His stories can be a little sad, and sometimes even a little bit depressing, but I really do love the way he writes. :)

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    1. Grapes of Wrath is amazing. I need to re-read that one! I'm afraid I've managed to put myself off East of Eden - been meaning to read it for such a long time I've talked myself out of it. One day I'll get to it :)

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  3. I have been to Cannery Row, though I've never read it (owing to my completely different Steinbeck issue). I do find it endlessly amusing that of course, Cannery Row is now extremely posh and doesn't smell like dead fish at all.

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    1. Of course it's been gentrified - OF COURSE! Why am I even surprised?! That's such a shame...

      I'd love to go there one day... :)

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    2. If you do, I'll meet you! :) Cannery Row is now full of fancy restaurants and the (fantastic) Monterey Bay Aquarium. There's a Steinbeck Park. ALL of Monterey is quite fancy, and only Carmel next door manages to be even more posh. Any unattractive or smelly industries have been moved safely far off, and it's all golf and whale-watching in gorgeous scenery.

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    3. Sounds very sanitised! It's funny how these things work out. There's an area near where I went to university, a proper Victorian slum it was in its day, even through to the 1950s apparently, a really genuinely awful and dangerous place. Now it's one of the poshest places in the area! Nice houses mind, nice architecture.

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  4. I went through the Steinbeck books in my early 20's. I have always loved him. This post reminds me it is time to revisit him again as it has been 40+ years since I last read him (with the exception of the Grapes of Wrath) which I read a couple of years ago and loved as ever.

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    1. He is excellent. I'm at the beginning of my phase really - looking forward to reading more, glad I'm over my 'putting him off' phase :)

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