Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row, Monteray

Cannery Row, Monteray

The last emotion I expected to experience with a John Steinbeck novel was laughter. My first encounter with him (Grapes of Wrath) hadn’t given me the impression he was anything other than depressing. So I resisted him for years. It was not until I joined a local book club who just happened to be reading Of Mice and Men that month, that I got an inkling that I’d misjudged the man. True it wasn’t very uplifting but there was a sense of  warmth and affection in his characters and tinges of humour mingled with the dispiriting nature of their predicament. Not quite ready to do battle with Grapes just however, I opted for the much shorter novel Cannery Row. It brought tears to my eyes, not of pity but of joy resulting from Steinbeck’s ability to wrest humour out of the most unlikely circumstances.

The is a novel which doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s more a collection of episodes about the people who live in the sardine canning district of Monterey, California. Today this is a small area crowded with tourists who swarm in and out of  souvenir shops and food outlets. In Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row is populated mainly by working-class people and a group of down-and-outs who live from one drink to another, begging, borrowing, stealing and fighting.  Their ringleader is the charismatic Mack, a man who if he put his mind to it would be smart enough to get a good job. But he prefers to lounge about on the fence, drinking a cocktail of slops from a local bar and doing odd jobs. He does however recognise a good turn when it comes his way. And no-one has been kinder to him and ‘the boys’ than Doc, a gentle, cultured man earning his living as a marine biologist.

Mack hits on the idea of trying to do something nice as a thank you for Doc: a surprise party.  Overcoming their first problem (a lack of money to fund the venture), they set about the plan with gusto.  Of course it all goes disastrously wrong causing extensive damage to Doc’s laboratory. Most people would have just given up at that point, but Mack is a resilient guy. He decides the only way to make amends is to throw another surprise party……. Is this any more successful? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

By the end of the book,  nothing has really changed. The characters go on living exactly as they have, good-naturedly co-existing within the community, through natural wit, innate goodness and genuine sense of community.

Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think… that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that ever will happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All of our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls, but Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.

Reflective at times, black comedic at others, this is a novel that seems to look fondly back to a time when Steinbeck believed life was somehow simpler;  a time when people could survive without money valued more for their companionship and the goodness of their hearts than the thickness of their wallet.  A little sentimental perhaps, maybe even naive but writing in the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War 2, it’s hardly surprising that Steinbeck del that his world had seen better days.



About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on August 27, 2014, in Book Reviews, Classics Club and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. The Grapes of Wrath is slowly working it’s way to the top of my list. I loved Of Mice and Men when I was a teenager but haven’t ever had the strength of mind to approach his other stuff. Good to hear that he can vary his style – I wrongly thought all his books would be depressing and emotionally draining…

    • It will not likely make it to the top of my TBR or classics club this year so I suspect you’ll get there before me. You can then tell me if it’s still one to be wary of 🙂

  2. I have a complete blank where American writers like Steinbeck, Lee and Salinger are concerned. This is just about to be partially rectified as one of my book groups is reading ‘Catcher in the Rye’ in about ten days time. I should really get hold of a copy 🙂

    • There is something about the big name American writers that just doesn’t excite me. Hence why I have not read many of them. F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemmingway leave me cold, Henry James I find really hard work and as for William Faulkner, nothing would get me to red anything g more than the one book I struggled through. Catcher in the Rye wS something g I read at school and wondered what all the fuss was about. Hope you fare better with it.

  3. I’ve not read this one but I do love Steinbeck so I am very glad you enjoyed it. Now I will have to get around to reading it one of these days!

  4. So impressed with the expanse of your reading. I read your blog and find I have more holes in my life list of books that I assume. Have read Grapes, Mice and Men,Travels with Charley, but not other Steinbeck, though I think I saw the James Dean East of Eden movie. I guess I didn’t continue because some Steinbeck seemed enough. I didn’t love his writing, but liked it.

  5. Interesting, I just finished East of Eden and thought it was nothing like Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck clearly has much more range than we’ve been giving him credit for! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    • I was going to work my way up to Grapes. I had a peek at the opening last time I was in the bookshop and liked what I read so I’m hoping to lay my past issues with this book to one side..

  6. I loved this book. My first exposure to Steinbeck was The Old Man and the Sea, which although I know many people didn’t enjoy I found excellent. I shared your experience of laughter with Cannery Row.

    Did you know there is a sequel? It’s called Sweet Thursday. (Wikipedia: I have yet to read it, but I’m told it’s very good.

  7. All right then, I guess I have to add this to my Classics Club list. I don’t associate Steinbeck with laughter either, but now I am curious.

  8. That’s so interesting. I found a few humorous incidents in The Grapes of Wrath, but I guess I was grasping at straws so I found what I was looking for. Or I have a very interesting sense of humor 😀

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