Reading him makes me wish I did not have to use the past tense when speaking of how he writes.
I just finished his 1945 novel, Cannery Row.
I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The book is not so much about plot, as it is an evocation of time and place. Almost, at times, a panoply of connected vignettes.
Short, economic chapters; never a suffocating moment.
The “cannery” district of Monterey California comes alive, as we meet people like Lee Chong, the shrewd, yet good-hearted general store owner.
From aspirin to zippers, if Lee Chong ain’t got it, you ain’t need it!
Then there's Mack, the self-appointed ringleader of a veritable posse of down-and-outers. These guys don’t work. [I envied them all the way through…] They just sit around all day and cause unintentional mayhem for the whole town, the main victim being Cannery Row’s one seeming intellectual, the marine biologist known as “Doc.”
The central thrust of Steinbeck’s novel is that Mack and his boys want to throw Doc a party. Doc is such a “nice guy” and he is always out there helping others, Mack figures it’s time to repay him with a bit of a shindig.
Amazing how such good intentions can go awry!
The first attempt at a party is a complete disaster. The second attempt, this time the event being Doc’s alleged birthday, is not much better, but by now Doc has taken precautions. Getting wind of his own party plans, he himself does most of the organizing, and feigns surprise when people start arriving.
But what’s the use?
At the end of this second party, his front door is again knocked off its hinges, and by now even the police have given up on arresting these well-intentioned hooligans!
It’s a terrific little novel [almost a novella] in which my lasting impression shall be the fact that all friendships, indeed, all human relationships, must be willing to embrace imperfection. Not just in the other person, but also in our own self.
In a subtle way, Doc learns through his bumbling friends, that he is not an island. In fact, he may even need these guys, from time to time.
Even he, self-sufficient Doc, may be in need of someone!
I often look into Steinbeck’s Letters [a book] to get a better appreciation for the time frame of some of his writings. Of Cannery Row, he said, back in 1943, to a friend… “I’m working on a funny little book and it is pretty nice.”
It is funny. It is nice.
The character of “Doc” was based on Steinbeck’s real-life friendship with a man by the name of Ed Ricketts.
I read Cannery Row in preparation to reading a new book I recently picked up, entitled Beyond The Outer Shores: The Untold Story of Ed Ricketts, The Pioneering Ecologist Who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell.
It’s by Eric Enno Tamm, and I look forward to beginning it, next week.
I highly recommend Cannery Row, to all and sundry.
It’s not East of Eden.
It’s not Grapes of Wrath.
But it’s definitely Cannery Row!