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.