Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

As soon as I began reading Cannery Row I thought I could be in for a treat – this is 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.

There are some books that begin well and then tail off so I was hoping this wouldn’t be one of those. There are some books, just a few, that have everything, rich descriptions of locations, wonderful characters and a storyline, even though in this book it’s really a series of stories with a thread running through to connect them to the whole, that grabs my attention and makes me want to know more. Cannery Row is just such a book.

I knew nothing about the book before I began reading (it’s my book group choice) and that made it even more enjoyable. Steinbeck’s style is perfect for me, I could see Cannery Row itself, a strip of Monterey’s Ocean View Avenue, where the Monterey sardines were caught and canned or reduced to oil or fishmeal, along with all the characters – no, it was more than that -I was there in the thick of it, transported in my mind, whilst I was reading and even afterwards as I thought about the novel.

The characters include a group of down and outs, lead by Mack, whose well intentioned actions usually end in disaster for himself and others. Then there is the shop keeper, Lee Chong, who also owns the Palace Flophouse where he lets Mack and the boys live, Dora, a woman with flaming red hair, the madam who runs the Bear Flag Restaurant, Doc who lives and works at the Western Biological Laboratory and Henri the painter who is building and never finishing a boat. There is humour and tragedy, meanness and generosity, life and death all within Cannery Row‘s 148 pages.

I loved this description of Cannery Row:

Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery Row. In the gray time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light. The street lights go out and the weeds are a brilliant green. The corrugated iron of the canneries glows with the pearly lucence of platinum or old pewter. No automobiles are running then. The street is silent of progress and business. And the rush and drag of the waves can be heard as they splash in among the piles of the canneries. It is a time of peace, a deserted time, a little era of rest. Cats drip over the fences and slither like syrup over the ground looking for fish heads. (page 64)

This paragraph continues in the same vein for almost a whole page. For me it conjures up such a vivid picture of the place, its light and sound and the sentence comparing the movement of cats dripping and slithering like syrup is just perfect.

It’s not just a visual delight, the book contains many gems, the frog collecting expedition and the party scene that end in chaos and wreckage, and the words of wisdom from Doc. Here is just one example:

‘It has always seemed strange to me,’ said Doc. ‘The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness and honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants  of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire, the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.’ (page 107)

This is the best book I’ve read so far this year and one I shall read again. I loved it and I definitely want to read more of Steinbeck’s books (I may have read, or at least started to read The Grapes of Wrath when I was at school and didn’t appreciate it at the time – the opening seems so familiar!).

9 thoughts on “Cannery Row by John Steinbeck”

  1. So glad you loved this book. It is a perfect little gem of a novel that really showcases Steinbeck’s genius. Now you have to read the sequel, Sweet Thursday, and then watch the movie (which covers both books) with Nick Nolte and Debra Winger.

    Cannery Row is lovely for all the reasons you so eloquently describe, and one of my all-time favorite books. We’re discussing a quick trip to San Francisco in March and I’m lobbying for a side trip down to Monterey. It’s been roughly 25 years since I was last there, and I really love the area.

    I’m rereading East of Eden later this year, and can’t wait. Another excellent Steinbeck 🙂

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  2. I loved The Grapes of Wrath at school, but never got around to reading any more Steinbeck – clearly I’ve been missing out! I do love a good first line – I’ve probably spent more time obsessing about a first line in my own writing than most of the other sentences put together 😉

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  3. As Jane said, this is a perfect gem of a book, and it has such poetic descriptions, and wonderful, wonderful reflections on Life, the Universe and Everything. It’s not political like the Grapes of Wrath (and certainly not as sad and bleak) – it’s warm, and funny, and wise, and everyone should read it!

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