by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck Centennial Edition, Penguin Books (2002)
Originally published by The Viking Press (1945)
This graceful, uncomplicated book is not only as much of a novel as any novel needs to be, it is far more than most are and many others pretend. If the slender volume were sold by the pound, it would necessarily command a very high price: the quality of Steinbeck�s writing is beyond question, and there is nothing in it, not even a careless crumb of a sentence, that goes to waste.
Cannery Row is not War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov, yet its characters experience moments of revelation as profound as those in either book. The stage and setting are infinitely smaller, but the writing is every bit as important and just as large, though one might not realize it at first. When the stories first begin to �crawl in by themselves,� as Steinbeck so aptly puts it in his brief prologue, they are of a noticeably common variety. And so they remain. As they accumulate and overlap, a larger portrait of Cannery Row � the hard-scrabble, brine-encrusted, earth-bound heart of 1930s Monterey, California � appears. Eventually, the portrait grows so large that the reader realizes he is standing before a portrait of life itself.
Confident in the fullness and power of his material, Steinbeck relies little on traditional conflict and resolution. Instead, he presents the simple ways in which the denizens of Cannery Row try to help and take advantage of each other as part of a timeless human dance. Cannery Row, defined by the local fishing economy and the Great Depression, defines in turn the actions of the people living there. At the same time, the people are Cannery Row, and Cannery Row reflects their outlook and eager, lazy, enterprising approach to living. Neighbors know each other so well that there are few practical secrets; yet on a deeper level, they remain strangers paralyzed by their assumptions and struggles to survive. Small things take on great and sentimental importance. Frogs, dogs, cats, tide pools, star fish, old car parts, jugs of whiskey, conversation, humor, and whore house visits are a soothing balm for the pain of existence.
In Cannery Row, Steinbeck writes with sympathy for the underdog without passing judgment. Lee Chong the grocer is shrewd because his survival depends on it, and because it is the natural outcome of his life and personality; Mack and his loyal company of bums prefer life on the edge for genuinely lazy, honest, and mostly logical, intelligent reasons; Doc drinks his quarts of beer and listens to great music late at night in his biological lab because he knows what life could be, and would like to forget what it really is. Meanwhile, the tiny miracles crowd in, and enrich the lives of anyone willing to notice. Love and friendship shrivel where they are cultivated, and grow wild elsewhere like weeds.
If I were to try to sum up Cannery Row in a word, I think I would use personality. If I had but a single sentence at my disposal, I would write, John Steinbeck understood. If you haven�t read the book yet, please do. You�ll see what I mean.
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From Cannery Row
by John Steinbeck
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 which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, �Saints, and angels and martyrs and holy men,� and he would have meant the same thing. . . .
. . . 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 an 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. . . .