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Classics Club #31: ‘Cannery Row’ by John Steinbeck ****

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has read my posts before that I am a huge fan of John Steinbeck.  When deciding upon the books for my Classics Club list, I incorporated three of his novels, Cannery Row being one of them.  In the novel, ‘Steinbeck returns to the setting of Tortilla Flat to draw another evocative portrait of life as it is lived by those who unabashedly put the highest value on the intangibles – warmth, camaraderie, and love’.

First published in 1945, the novel’s fabulous opening lines really set the tone for the whole: ‘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’.

As I invariably am in Steinbeck’s stories, I was struck by the way in which he makes use of each of the senses to build believable and vivid scenes: ‘The whole street rumbles and groans and screams and rattles while the silver rivers of fish pour in and out of the boats and the boats rise higher and higher in the water until they are empty’.  The end of the prologue, too, is absolutely perfect, and instantly became one of my favourite passages in literature: ‘How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise – the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream – be set down alive?  When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch.  You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water.  And perhaps that might be the way to write this book – to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves’.

Elements of Cannery Row are incredibly gritty; Steinbeck is so good at letting the darker sides of life manifest themselves within his tales.  In the novel, he focuses upon those who have been shunned by society; largely those below, or just hovering upon, the breadline.  We meet the ‘bums’ who live in a shack owned by Lee Chong, the Chinese owner of a grocery store, as well as brothel madam Dora, who is incredibly kind with regard to such things as charitable donations and nursing the neighbourhood’s sick.  Doc, the owner of the Western Biological Laboratory, is a protagonist whom a lot of the story’s action – and, in part, the community’s spirit – spirals around: ‘He wears a beard and his face is half Christ and half satyr and his face tells the truth.  It is said that he has helped many a girl out of one trouble and into another!’ The historical context of California in 1932 has been well built.  Amongst other things, Steinbeck makes reference to the Model-T generation, and an epidemic of influenza.

Indeed, there are a number of complex and rather fascinating characters here; Henri, for example, an occasionally eccentric artist, who is building a boat which he never finishes.  Doc tells his colleague, Hazel, that the following reason is responsible for his neverending project: ‘”But suppose he finishes his boat.  Once it’s finished people will say, ‘Why don’t you put it in the water?’  Then if he puts it in the water, he’ll have to go out in it, and he hates the water.  So you see, he never finishes the boat – so he doesn’t even have to launch it.”‘

In Cannery Row, Steinbeck presents a fabulous look into a complex and vibrant community, making it clear that each and every individual who has made this particular part of Monterey their home needs one another in order to both survive and be content.  Throughout, characters are reliant upon one another, and the boundaries of this interdependence shift as the novel goes on.  Whilst it is not his most engaging novel, I still very much enjoyed my foray into Cannery Row.  I can only be glad that I did so from the boundaries of my armchair.

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