It starts by describing the key inhabitants of this town; in the words of the author his technique is simply to "open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves." There is Lee Chong who owns a grocery store that stocks everything, despite its seeming lack of space, a sort of Hilbert Hotel of capitalism. There is Mack and the boys who only work when they need to and who rent (rent-free) the Palace Flophouse and Grill which they have furnished with bits and pieces they have picked up in the street. There is Dora, the madam of the whore house, and her girls. And there is Doc who collects marine specimens and sells them to scientific institutions and collectors and who reads books and poetry and drinks beer for breakfast and listens to classical music on his gramophone and who entertains ladies when he can and who looks after all the assorted half-wits and ne'er-do-wells on the strip.
There are also a whole set of minor characters, each fully rounded, each with a contribution to make to the mystery of what it is to be human. As Steinbeck sees it, from one perspective we are ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches’ while from another angle we are ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men’. Cannery Row is the universe.
The story, such as it is, and it evolves slowly and gently, is about the party that Mack and the boys give for Doc, because Doc is one hell of a nice guy. Being Mack and the boys they have to earn money first so they can buy the whiskey that the party will need. To earn money they have to catch frogs that Doc will buy from them to sell on. To catch the frogs they have to borrow a pick up from Lee Chong and fill it with petrol and travel to the frog pond. But Mack and the boys are deeply flawed human beings, as are we all, and their best laid plans gang aft agley (to quote the poem which Steinbeck quotes in Of Mice and Men).
And Steinbeck combines both comedy and tragedy with his deep compassion and understanding of humanity.
His prose is beautiful.
The prologue starts with the paragraph:
“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 he meant Everybody. Had the man look through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men’, and he would have meant the same thing.”
It ends by asking:
“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 stories crawl in by themselves.”
Another 'poem' almost exactly half way through celebrates sunrise over the Row:
“Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery Row. In the gray time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light. The street lights go out, and the weeds are a brilliant green. The corrugated iron of the canneries glows with the pearly lucence of platinum or old pewter. No automobiles are running then. tTe street is silent of progress and business. And the rush and drag of the waves can be heard as they splash in among the piles of the canneries. It is a time of great peace, a deserted time, a little era of rest. Cats drip over the fences and slither like syrup over the ground to look for fish heads. Silent early morning dogs parade majestically picking and choosing judiciously whereon to pee. The sea gulls come flooding in to sit on the cannery roofs to await the day of refuse. They sit on the roof peaks shoulder to shoulder. From the rocks near the Hopkins Marine Station comes the barking of sea lions like the baying of hounds. The air is cool and fresh. In the back garden the gophers push up the morning mounds of fresh damp earth and they creep out and drag flowers into their holes. Few people are about, just enough to make it seem more deserted than it is. One of Dora’s girls comes home from a call on a patron too wealthy or too sick to visit the Bear Flag. her makeup is a little sticky and her feet are tired. Lee Chong brings the garbage cans out and stands them on the curb. The old Chinaman comes out of the sea and flap-flaps across the street and up past the Palace. The cannery watchmen look out and blink at the morning light. The bouncer at the Bear Flag steps out on the porch in his shirt-sleeves and stretches and yawns and scratches his stomach. The snores of Mr Malloy’s tenants in the pipes have a deep tunnelly quality. It is the hour of the pearl - the interval between day and night when time stops and examines itself.”
Two lines again: "Cats drip over the fences and slither like syrup over the ground to look for fish heads. Silent early morning dogs parade majestically picking and choosing judiciously whereon to pee." Shudderingly accurate.
The main characters (apart from Doc, the compassionate God of all he surveys) are Mac and his fellow bums. Doc sees them as philosophers who have the answers to the meanings of life:
“Mack and his friends approached contentment casually, quietly, and absorbed it gently.” (p 10) They have a hunter-gatherer lifestyle:
- “A hardware store supplied a can of red paint not reluctantly because it never knew about it.” (p 12)
- “There was one nice thing about Model T’s. The parts were not only interchangeable, they were unidentifiable.” (p 56)
- “A dusty Rhode Island red rooster who had wandered too far from his own farmyard crossed the road and Eddy hit him without running too far off the road.” (p 56)
This is the way to find happiness: “What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?” (p 13 - 14)
There are wonderful observations of character:
- Hazel likes to keep a conversation going by asking questions. He isn't really interested in the answers. And he hates being asked questions because that means he has to answer them. "It meant casting about in his mind for an answer and casting about in Hazel's mind was like wandering alone in a deserted museum. Hazel's mind was choked with uncatalogued exhibits."
- “He can kill anything for need but he could not even hurt a feeling for pleasure.” (p 23)
- “She was tired and rundown ... from trying to feed and clothe seven children and their father. She had tried every possible way of making money - paper flowers, mushrooms at home, rabbits for meat and fur - while her husband from a canvas chair gave her every help his advice and reasoning and criticism on offer.” (p 25)
- “Reform schools are supposed to teach viciousness and criminality but Hazel didn't pay enough attention.” (p 25)
- “He had observed that a man got just as drunk on half a glass as on a whole one, that is, if he was in the mood to get drunk at all.” (p 32)
- “Jones talked too much then because he knew he had made a social blunder and he wasn't able to stop.” (p 59)
- “There are two possible reactions to social ostracism - either a man emerges determined to be better, purer, and kindlier, or he goes bad, challenges the world and does even worse things. This last is by far the commonest reaction to stigma.” (p 105)
Steinbeck gives us a guidebook for living in this world:
- "The nature of parties has been imperfectly studied. It is, however, generally understood that a party has a pathology, that it is a kind of individual and that it is likely to be a very perverse individual. And it is also generally understood that a party hardly ever goes the way it is planned or intended. This last, of course, excludes those dismal slave parties, whipped and controlled and dominated, given by ogreish professional hostesses. These are not parties at all but acts and demonstrations, about as spontaneous as peristalsis and as interesting as its end product." (p 138)
- “The grocery opened at dawn and did not close until the last wandering vagrant dime had been spent or retired for the night.” (p 7)
- “a blended whiskey guaranteed four months old very cheap” (p 8)
- The whorehouse madam “Is hated by the twisted and lascivious sisterhood of married spinsters whose husbands respect the home but don't like it very much.” (p 15)
- “He looked up a little nervously as Mack entered. It was not that trouble always came in with Mack but something always entered with him.” (p 39)
- “There is no term comparable to green thumbs to apply to such a mechanic, but there should be. For there are men who can look, listen, tap, make an adjustment, and a machine works. Indeed there are men near whom a car runs better.” (p 48)
- “Someone should write an erudite essay on the moral, physical, and esthetic effect of the Model T Ford on the American nation. Two generations of Americans know more about the Ford coil than the clitoris ... with the Model T, part of the concept of private property disappeared. Pliers ceased to be privately owned and a tire pump belonged to the last man who had picked it up. Most of the babies of the period were conceived in Model T Fords and not a few were born in them.” (p 51)
- “‘My wife is a wonderful woman,’ he said in a kind of peroration. ‘Most wonderful woman. Ought to have been a man. If she was a man I wouldn' of married her.’ He laughed a long time over that and repeated it three or four times and resolved to remember it so he could tell it to other people.” (p 71)
- “There were philosophical implications in flag-pole skating that no one had touched.” (p76)
- “Doc still loved true things but he knew it was not a general love and it could be a very dangerous mistress.” (p 78)
- “From the first she was a precocious bitch. She slept on the bed of the man who had given her the last bribe.” (p 89)
- “Henri had many friends whom he loosely classified as those who could feed him and those whom he had to feed.” (p 101)
- “Who wants to be good if he has to be hungry too?” (p 107)
- “The cops reported their own car stolen and found it later on the beach.” (p 143)
- “It don't do no good to say I'm sorry. I been sorry all my life. This ain't no new thing. It's always like this ... I was glad when you hit me ... I thought to myself - ‘Maybe this will teach me. Maybe I'll remember this’. But, hell, I won't remember nothin’. I won't learn nothin’.” (p 98 - 99)
A truly wonderful book. February 2015; 148 pages