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.