"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem ..." writes Steinbeck as the very first line of this bijou book and he makes this tale of the poor people by the sea where the fishing boats bring their catch to be canned into a haunting, elegiac, beautiful symphony.
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." The 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.
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. I will quote a few selections which I found particularly remarkable:
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."
"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 knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris."
"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."
A truly wonderful book. February 2015; 148 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57