Monday, October 6, 2008

Cannery Row

Cannery Row
Author: John Steinbeck
Penguin Classics, 1994 (originally published 1945)
181 pages

I was in Monterey, California last week for the very first time, and was charmed by the quaint city and its surroundings. Although I didn't actually go to Cannery Row the place, I saw it from the bay one morning from the whalewatching cruise boat. It's changed a lot since the days John Steinbeck lived in the area, but I'm sure there were some things, such as the smell of the salty sea air, that were the same when he was there.

I read more than my share of Steinbeck in high school (The Pearl, Of Mice and Men), college (The Grapes of Wrath), and just for fun (East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent), but I could not remember reading Cannery Row. So when we visited the San Francisco Bay area after the trip to the Monterey Peninsula, I asked my friend "Q" if we could pop by B&N. I mean, if I wanted to read Cannery Row, I might as well start reading the book in California, right? Yeah. 

So I started reading it on the flight from San Jose to Chicago, and it went quickly. In fact, when we landed at O'Hare, I only had about 20 pages left (which I breezed through on the quick flight from Chicago to Indy.)

The setting is not so much Cannery Row but its surroundings. Back in the 1920s-1930s, Monterey was a major producer of sardines which came out of the bay (or from the area). Cannery Row was the name of the part of town where the sardines were canned. Several canning companies had factories there. It was hard, nasty work. Monterey was also home to a couple of military facilities (Army and Navy still have a presence there today) and it was/is also a port city, so it was not uncommon to see sailors roaming about the town. It must have been a happening kind of place.

In the preface to the book Cannery Row, the Steinbeck scholar-author writes that a British review of the book after it's original publication described it as (I'm paraphrasing) a book about nothing. I can understand why. The book does ramble a lot, and it's more about people and characterizations (Steinbeck's strength, IMHO) than it is about plot. There is a plot - sort of. And there are certainly lots of disasters. Some of them funny, others sad.

The characters in Cannery Row were based on stereotypes of real people that Steinbeck interacted with in his daily life there on the peninsula: Doc, the marine biologist, who collected and sold all kinds of marine life for scientific research and bought himself two pints of beer for just about every meal; Lee Chong, the Chinese grocery store owner who sold it to him (and would sell pretty much anything else to anyone else); Mack, the leader of the mostly unemployed group of men who rented space from Lee Chong; Hazel, one of the group members whose mother had so many children, she forgot to inquire whether he was a boy or girl when she named him; and Dora, the buxom, orange-haired madame of the local whorehouse. Each of these characters has a hard edge but a soft heart. For example, when the town gets influenza, Dora and her "girls" make and deliver soup and take care of the sick.

Some of the minor characters, such as Frankie (the child Doc tried to help) and the retired Army officer (whom Mack and his gang meet while on a frog-catching mission) only show up on a few pages, yet have long-lasting influence on the main characters and outcome of the story.

I laughed out loud several times while I was reading Cannery Row. Other times, I probably could have wept. This book may be "old" but human nature pretty much stays the same no matter how many years go by. When you get tired of modern fiction or books that really are about nothing, pick up something by Steinbeck, and get drawn back into some good writing. 

Tortilla Flat is supposedly the sequel to Cannery Row. I'll have to check that out someday.

Rating: 4.25 stars. And it won a Nobel Prize for Literature, too.