Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review: Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck is a great author. I literally don't think I have ever read anything by him which has disappointed me. Even the recently epically-promoted East of Eden (see: Oprah) was as epic as I could have ever hoped. So, what's up with Steinbeck and why are all of his books so great?

He doesn't write with flair, his novels are not filled with action or suspense, and his personal life wasn't particularly exciting. In my opinion, what makes all of his works immensely readable, compelling masterpieces is (brace for the cringe-worthy artistic descriptor) his ability to tell the human story. From the half hour read of The Pearl to the earlier-noted epic East of Eden, what Steinbeck excels at is painting a picture of the complexity and depth of the species Homo sapiens. In Steinbeck's writings, even the most sympathetic protagonist is sometimes a coward or a cheat. Likewise, villains aren't (or weren't) always villains; they have brief moments of kindness, or at least non-evil behavior. 

It is in this way that Steinbeck proceeds in Cannery Row. For the most part, the novel does not have a typical plot or story line. In fact, more than anything else, it is a character study of the people who live in the Cannery Row neighborhood in Monterey during the Depression.  It focuses primarily on two characters. The first is Doc, a cultured, well-educated man beloved by the community who makes a living selling specimens, land and sea-based, dead and alive, for scientific uses. The other character, who actually happens to be several characters, is a group of vagrants who live a relatively carefree life in Cannery Row. On the periphery are a number of other colorful characters, including your stereotypical Asian grocer and a Madam of the local brothel with the heart of gold. 

If there is a plot to the novel, it goes like this: Mac and the rest of his group of squatters decide, because of all that Doc has done for them, that they will throw a party for him. They screw up royally and everything goes to the birds. To make up for this, they decide to throw him a better, more successful party. Shenanigans, as expected, ensue.

In the midst of this main story, there are almost what would almost be considered intermissions. They are two to three page chapters highlighting a very, very peripheral character in an anecdote. This way you come to know not only the main characters deeply, but get a shallower feel for the peripheral characters and an understanding of the community as a whole.

The plot obviously isn't supposed to be the highlight of this novel, though. In fact, the book is just over one-hundred pages, so nailing down a complex plot is not going to happen. The plot exists to allow Steinbeck to shine a light on the traits and behaviors of the characters. The bums, though thieves and sometimes swindlers, are kind-hearted and well-meaning. Doc, though universally beloved and generous to a fault, is a lonely and sometimes sad man.

It is classic Steinbeck that the group of men who have next to nothing are far more content that Doc, who is one of the most well-off members of Cannery Row. Both have their virtues and vices; the only difference is which well each springs from. 

I'm not going to go more in-depth into the analysis and description. Just read the book. It will take you a day or two if you're even relatively diligent about it. It's worth your time.

Is this a great book? You bet it is. Is it one of the best one-hundred I've ever read? I would say no, but I wouldn't say it with complete certainty. Steinbeck manages to pack more in just over one-hundred pages than some (*cough*Virginia Woolf*cough*) manage to say with several times the page length. I'm biased towards this style and this is probably why I love John Steinbeck's works. With this in mind, I'm going to Cannery Row four out of five stars and recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading words.

Next up is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. I'm not a huge fan of Bladerunner (I know, travesty), which Do Androids... was an inspiration for, but I'm hoping I enjoy the book more. I've had good luck with his novels in the past.


  1. Such a great read. I kinda like how there's no plot -- I think the lack thereof just goes on to prove what you said, that Steinbeck was a master at telling the "human story" -- because sometimes life has no plot. Cannery Row was just a simple/beautiful snapshot of life in Monterey.
    Earthbound But Aspiring

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