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.
From the Penguin ‘Drop Caps’ series that I covered last year in a general review of all twenty six books, and I’m amazed that I had never read it before, the quote at the top is the opening line and immediately draws the reader in. What little Steinbeck I have read in the past I have thoroughly enjoyed, he really was a master wordsmith able to conjure totally believable characters with just a few sentences or even a handful of words and what characters he has populating Cannery Row. There is a plot to the narrative but it is definitely secondary to the characterisations deployed. You really get to know marine biologist Doc and his lab/home, Mack and the boys at the Palace Flophouse and Grill (a rather grandly titled abandoned storage shed), Dora and her girls at the Bear Flag Restaurant (in reality a bordello), Lee Chong and his shop which seems to stock everything, albeit totally randomly, and the general human detritus living in whatever shelter they can find along the Row.
The people are poor but making the best of their situation, the time is the 1930’s during the Great Depression and times are hard. The main employers are the sardine canneries that give the area its name although the work depended on the arrival of the boats loaded with fish which also gives the area its distinctive odour. None of the characters are actually in employment at the canneries though, apart from when they need some money which they cannot get some other way. Lee Chong, Dora and Doc all have legitimate businesses in their own right. Lee’s grocery presumably would make money if his customers actually had any, what it mainly makes is debts which do mainly get paid off when he refuses to extend any more credit to somebody unless they actually part with some money to cover the backlog. Doc is the main character of the book, he owns Western Biological Laboratory, and if anyone in the US wanted a specimen of pretty well any sort of animal Doc would get it for them, eventually anyway. Dora as stated above owns the bordello and probably makes more money than any of the other characters but has to hand over large parts of it in ‘charity’ just to ensure that the authorities keep looking the other way. She is genuinely kind hearted though and looks after her staff who can’t work much due to age or infirmity, one breaks her leg during the book and there is no suggestion that because she can’t work she would lose her room or meals each day.
Mack and the boys at the flophouse, which they con Lee Chong out of at the start of the book, don’t work unless they have to, they have developed over the years a sense of contentment about their lives where they can get what little they need to survive somehow, even if it actually belongs to somebody else at the time. What they will do is get creatures for Doc at a fixed price that everybody knows because that’s more of an adventure than ‘working’ for a living. Despite their low grade criminality you can’t help but like them, they are more victims of their schemes than pretty well any one else and they are genuinely remorseful when things go badly wrong.
Even the bit parts are masterful, I particularly enjoyed the regular appearances of the old Chinaman as he wandered down to the sea and back each day; and like a minor character in a West End farce he always failed to interact with any of the major players whilst just walking through the narrative adding nothing to the plot apart from a comic interlude and a sense of wonder. Just what is it he is doing and why? It’s never explained.
The book revolves around Doc, his need for specimens and his love of classical music, his books and a quiet life. The plot, such as it is, involves Mack and the boys wanting to do ‘something nice for Doc’. They decide on a party so then need to raise some money to finance it, how they get the ‘money’ and the form it takes is really funny and the disaster of the party leads to real poignancy as the various characters reflect on how it went so horribly wrong and what to do to try to make it right. The book is brilliant and difficult to put down when you have started you just need to know more about the population of Cannery Row and apparently there is a sequel so I have to get a copy of that.