Cannery Row

Cannery Row  Cannery Row, John Steinbeck

A fairly short book, Cannery Row isn’t so much a novel as it is a sketchbook. Published in 1945, it takes place on a particular street in Monterey, CA, during the Great Depression. The book covers the characters and their goings on, a window into one particular place and time and the people making their lives there.

The ostensible plot of the book centers around Doc, a marine biologist who works at the lab in Cannery Row and is likely the most “respectable” person in the book. He studies the marine life and collects specimens, which he packs and sells to labs and classrooms around the country. Mack, the leaders of a very contented community of drunks and layabouts, decide to throw a thank you party for Doc to thank him for all the good he’s done for them and everyone else. Along the way this premise is used to flesh out the people and buildings who are to be found on Cannery Row.

Steinbeck is an evocative writer, able to set a scene or make you know a person with a few well chosen words or phrases. And he is an amazing observer of humanity. Steinbeck is a master of find a way to describe those aspects of people or humanity that are under the surface, the type that seem to go away when you look at them straight on, and find a way to describe them perfectly. It shows up in all of his books, which are populated with such poignant characters, but in a book where the story is the characters, his talent really shines.

Cannery Row reminds me of nothing so much as Richard Brautigan, in all the best ways. He’s not nearly as absurd, and all of Steinbeck’s sentences make sense, but the book also doesn’t feel entirely real, either. Cannery Row seems to exist just next to our world, the way much of Brautigan’s writing does. But at the same time it’s easy to put oneself there. I smell the tide and feel the cold water when reading of Doc’s excursions the same way I smell loam and feel Northern California fog when I read Brautigan.

I adore this book. Steinbeck is always a joy to read, but it can be hard to be joyful when reading his stories. Cannery Row is a departure from those, although similar to books such as Tortilla Flat, which played with the same concept and location but with a different group of characters. It’s not that it’s all slight, as there is much going on under the surface of the story, but the book doesn’t deal with heady subjects, just the basics of living and the many different ways people go about that. It’s a delightful novel, with beautiful language, and that radiates with love for its subjects. A truly wonderful experience to read.

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