Cannery Row is about Cannery Row in Monterey, California circa 1945. The inhabitants of Cannery Row are like furnishings or decorations, and the real narrative here is about life on the edge of the sea itself. This is a charming book, a book that seems simple on the surface but really is quite complex. It’s a sweet and sad little book with interwoven narrative threads that never quite amount to an actual plot. It’s a book that makes me think of listening to your grandpa drone on and on about the good old days but only if your grandpa is witty and sweet and recognizes that the good old days weren’t really all that good all the time. Cannery Row is well worth reading.
And, oh, friends and fellow readers, Cannery Row broke my heart. I think there’s something in this short and simply written book to break just about everyone’s heart. Steinbeck is very good at capturing the full spectrum of life with all its myriad hopes and all its plural wounds. I guarantee there’s something in this book that will hit you like an unexpected freight train and leave you hollowed out and breathless. For me, it was Frankie. And it’s Steinbeck’s simple and unflappable voice trudging onward through the narrative that heals you up again.
My point of reference for Steinbeck’s work is inevitably East of Eden; it was the first book of his I read, and it blew me away. I can’t help but compare anything I read of his after to it. Cannery Row is a very different book. Where East of Eden is massive in scope and sweeps across generations, Cannery Row is tight in focus. East of Eden is a true believer of a book—it feels like Steinbeck is trying to imbue every page with his sense of morality and justice and decency. And no book is ever devoid of these things. No book is ever written in a vacuum. But Cannery Row is a much more subtle book.
There is, still, Steinbeck’s simple style in both, and his peculiar way of turning a predictable sentence suddenly into poetry. Case in point, his description of Doc:
He wears a beard and his face is half Christ and half satyr and his face tells the truth.
That this sentence starts as a perfectly competent and typical physical description of a main character and organically spins itself out so abstractly is a thing of beauty. There is also, in both East of Eden and in Cannery Row such an emphasis on place. Steinbeck has such a rootedness in his writing.* This is not a book about people so much as it’s about place. The characters are incidental; they matter and their stories are worth telling by virtue of the fact that they live on Cannery Row. In Steinbeck’s writing, over and over I get the sense that for him it’s the place that shapes the people instead of (for me) the other way around. Cannery Row itself was worth a book and worth description and capture on its own merits. Had it not been Doc and Hazel and Lee Chong there he would have used someone else.
And like East of Eden, Cannery Row is an extremely male book. In both, women exist but exist along the periphery. We have glancing blows here in Cannery Row with Dora the madam and her girls but the woman we see most clearly, the girl who has the most space in the narrative, is dead when we meet her. We never learn anything about her. This is a weakness in Steinbeck’s writing, and one I think extends to the man himself. In Journal of a Novel, which consists of his unsent letters to his editor while he drafted East of Eden he reveals himself to be one of those men who sees women as a wholly different species, murky and unpredictable and essentially unwritable. Which is a shame.
*I find the emphasis on place fascinating in Steinbeck’s work partly because, at first glance, it feel so strange and foreign. What’s actually strange and foreign about it is the deep love he holds for California. After all, I’m deeply rooted, too: I ran so hard and so fast from home that I would be lying if I tried to claim it wasn’t still deep in my bones and that it didn’t loom over me.