Book Review: SWEET THURSDAY

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John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday revisits the people and places of Cannery Row. Set after World War II, some of the cast of the Row has changed—Lee Chong has moved on, and his store is taken up by a clever criminal by the name of Joseph and Mary Rivas; the Bear Flag brothel is now under the care of a star-chart-reading madam named Fauna; while Mack and Hazel still remain at the Palace Flophouse, the rest of the tenets have changed over the years. The book is centered around the two biggest changes: Doc has gone to war and come home again, and a girl named Suzy arrives on Cannery Row. Both are wounded, stubborn, deeply lonely people, and the folks of Cannery Row take it upon themselves to get the two together.

As is typical for Steinbeck’s work, Sweet Thursday appears simple but is actually rather complex. It is, on the surface, a somewhat saccharine love story. It’s a love story mostly about how a woman can save a man, can fix him, which means that the love story is really about the man and much less about the woman. That’s one of my least favorite kinds of love story, frankly, which meant this book was not always what I wanted it to be or what I wanted to read. But a deeper reading makes this a weightier, darker book. This book is as much about redemption as it is about love. It’s as much about reconciling the past as it is about building a future. Doc comes back from the war changed—hollow and flat and listless and angry, or what we today might call PTSD-stricken. We don’t know what he saw in the war, but I’m sure it was nothing pleasant. Suzy shows up on the Row penniless and hungry, on the run from what is hinted to be a nasty failed marriage. She is angry and listless, too.

To some extent, this is a slapstick book. Steinbeck’s raucous, corny style of comedy is in play throughout. But counterbalancing that is a weirdly pervasive casual violence. Characters who seemed so gentle in Cannery Row, like Hazel and Doc, pick fights, break bones and nearly strangle others. Doc spends several pages literally enraging octopi to the point of death. It’s threaded through the book, start to finish, and I found it a little disturbing. Everything in the book reads like a desperate scramble to right things, to get things back to the equilibrium of the first book, both in the plot and in the writing itself.

Sweet Thursday is not Cannery Row—and I doubt it’s really trying to be, so while one is a sequel of the other it’s ultimately an apples-to-oranges comparison. It’s a different book: where in Cannery Row the characters were the backdrop and the place was the protagonist, the characters take center stage here. Sweet Thursday has a much more linear and traditional narrative plot, which, perhaps, comes as part of it being more about the people than the place. It is a good book on its own merits, but it feels unfocused. It feels like Steinbeck’s heart and his brain were trying to write two different books here, and he was never quite able to resolve those inconsistencies.

bookreview3stars

Book Review: CANNERY ROW

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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.

4/5 stars

*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.