Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
publication date: 1945
I am in a book club with some co-workers and Cannery Row was our latest book club selection. It was a fun choice because I could feel literary, but without having to read Grapes of Wrath. I generally enjoy the Steinbeck novels I have read in the past, especially The Pearl and The Winter of Our Discontent.
I can add Cannery Row to the list of Steinbeck novels I enjoyed. (Although now that I’m thinking about it, I will probably never read any of them again. Oh well!) Cannery Row was not an “epic Steinbeck,” like Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden. Instead, it was a collection of related vignettes presented in novel form. The plot is almost non-existent. The main story arc revolves around the preparations for a party. However, the strength of this book does not come from the plot but from the characters and Steinbeck’s punchy writing style.
The relationship I had with the characters in this book was odd. I did not find any of them believable. No one I know or have ever meet spoke or thought like any of the characters. For example, two characters, Hazel and Doc, are at the beach and they notice some stink bugs. Hazel asks Doc what he thinks the reason stink bugs have “their asses up in the air for.” The rest of the dialogue goes like this:
“I think they’re praying.”
“The remarkable thing isn’t that they put their tails up in the air – the really incredibly remarkable thing is that we find it remarkable. We can only use ourselves as yardsticks. If we did something as inexplicable and strange we’d probably be praying – so maybe they’re praying.”
“Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Who talks like that?! No one. I did find it endearing, though. Even though I didn’t understand what in the heck Hazel and Doc were talking about, I liked them. And I wanted to know what would happen to them and make sure they would be alright. Steinbeck presents many characters just like that. I can’t say that I relate to them, but each of them does have a humanness that makes them likable.
Additionally, Steinbeck clearly has a love for his characters and for the setting. Cannery Row is set in a poor California coastal town. The book includes several passages earnestly describing the buildings, topography, and inhabitants of the town. The most effective of these passages are those that describe the sea. For example: “Then the creeping murderer, the octopus, steals out, slowly, softly, moving like a gray mist, pretending now to be a bit of weed, now a rock, now a lump of decaying meat while its evil goat eyes watch coldly.”
Like much of Steinbeck’s work, the book is also peppered with what my high school English teacher called “everyman chapters.” These are the chapters that are related to what is happening in the book but don’t actually involve any of the characters or move the plot along. The everyman chapters showcase Steinbeck’s ability to present the human experience. In one such passage, Steinbeck discusses how no one believes in omens or superstitions. “But it doesn’t do any good to take chances with them and no one takes chances. Cannery Row, like every place else, is not superstitious but will not walk under a ladder or open an umbrella in the house . . . . most people in Cannery Row simply do not believe in such things and then live by them.” That passage shows Steinbeck at his finest: the ability to get to the very center of something that normally escapes our notice.
In conclusion, the characters weren’t identifiable but I liked them. And the plot was trivial but I was interested. And the chapters didn’t have much to do with the rest of the book but seemed relevant. I guess that’s the magic of Steinbeck!
4/6: worth reading
Some other reviews of the book: