For this first Friday in 2016 Barry Ergang gets things started here for Fridays Forgotten Books. After you read his review, head on over to Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom Blog for other reading suggestions as he is substituting for Patti Abbott again this week.
CANNERY ROW (1945) by John Steinbeck
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
Entertaining and informative though it is, John Steinbeck’s short, fast-moving, frequently funny but also poignant Cannery Row is not the easiest fiction to describe, all previous adjectives notwithstanding. More a portrait of a place, time and populace—the impoverished waterfront and (obviously) cannery area of Monterey, California during the Depression era, and the denizens thereof—than a conventionally-plotted work, it could stand as an exemplar of the “episodic” novel.
As the author describes it in the opening sentence, “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.”
The principal plot thread, such as it is, concerns the man known as Doc, who owns and operates Western Biological Laboratory, which supplies specimens of various kinds to researchers. Among the inhabitants of Cannery Row are Mack and the boys (Hazel, Eddie, Gay, Hughie, and Jones), local derelicts who have persuaded grocery/multifarious goods supplier Lee Chong to allow them to live in a local warehouse of sorts which he, Chong, has acquired. After fixing it up, “the boys moved in and the fish meal moved out. No one knows who named the house that has been known ever after as the Palace Flophouse and Grill.” And because over time Mack, the boys, and their friends conclude that Doc merits a reward of sorts, they decide a party at Western Biological is in order.
Anything said beyond that regarding the plot would be a spoiler.
Intervening chapters include historical information about the area as well as anecdotes and vignettes about many of the other inhabitants of Cannery Row, among them Dora, owner of the Bear Flag Restaurant, the whorehouse of which she is the madame, and some of the women who work for her; Henri, artist and boat-builder who is not exactly what he seems; Mr. and Mrs. Sam Malloy, pipe-renters; and a considerable number of others.
Despite my advanced (read hoary) years, this is only the second of Steinbeck’s novels I’ve ever read, the first having been Of Mice and Men a few decades or so ago. As I hinted at in the first paragraph herein, and want to point out now as superbly written, it is well worth anyone’s time.
© 2016 Barry Ergang