Monday, April 26, 2010

Cannery Row

I picked this up on a whim and it turned out to be a delight to read. The Post or Times recently ran a story about the last sardine cannery in the U.S. closing down – the end of a world, the reporter wrote, chronicled by John Steinbeck in Cannery Row.

The reporter neglected to mention that while it was set in a Monterey dominated by the canneries, the Steinbeck novel never ventures into the factories or factory life. Rather, it portrays a small Depression-era community on the other side of the tracks that includes a flophouse with a group of deadbeats, a whorehouse, a Chinese-operated grocery, and a “marine laboratory” that probably would be shut down by a dozen laws nowadays.

It is a series of vignettes about this community rather than a narrative, though events do move towards a climax of sorts with the second effort to host a party for Doc, who operates the laboratory. The main characters are Mack, the leader of the flophouse group, and Doc, though we get little inkling of their interior lives.

What moves the reader along are the wonderfully observed details of the life in Cannery Row, the character quirks of the individuals, and above all the delicious irony of the narrator. This is a very funny book, with touching moments of a broad tolerance for human failings and the small joys that all of us try to salvage from larger dreams gone awry.

Take this riff on the Model T Ford: “Someone should write an erudite essay on the moral, physical, and esthetic effect of the Model T Ford on the American nation. Two generations of Americans knew more about the Ford coil than the clitoris, about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars…Most of the babies of the period were conceived in the Model T Fords and not a few were born in them….”

Steinbeck's style is spare, but still has soul – Hemingway with heart. For instance: “The Carmel is a lovely little river. It isn’t very long but in its course it has everything a river should have. It rises in the mountains, and tumbles down a while, runs through shallows, is dammed to make a lake, spills over the dam, crackles among round boulders, wanders lazily under sycamores, spills into pools where trout live, drops in against banks where crayfish live. In the winter it becomes a torrent, a mean little fierce river, and in the summer its is a place for children to wade in and for fishermen to wander in….”

Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize largely on the strength of Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, but his smaller books, this one and Of Mice and Men, also stay in print for a reason.

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