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.