Joyce Lagow's Reviews > Cannery Row

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
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Apr 20, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: literature

Written in a style that Steinbeck uses with great effect in his earlier California novels, Cannery Row is a collection of stories about yet another bunch of somewhat seedy characters who live in one of the more down-at-heels areas, the sardine canning section, of Monterey. More effectively than in Tortilla Flat, which this book resembles a great deal in structure and style, there is a central, organizing figure Doc who, though a resident of Cannery Row is yet an outsider, who plays Bach fugues whenever he is entertaining" women, and who is beloved of all the other residents. Doc is modeled on Steinbeck s closest friend and mentor, the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, who, like Doc, owned a biological supply company in Monterey.[return][return]One would think that being the person most respected and most loved in a community is a really good thing; most of us aspire consciously or otherwise to have similar love and respect lavished on us. But such attitudes can be a two-edged sword, especially when dealing with the likes of some of the boys , led by Mack a natural leader with an aversion to work. Not only is Doc the first one the boys think of when needing just a bit to tide them over (to the next bottle of wine), he also is the unwilling recipient of proofs of the devotion of his admirers, all of whom agree that somebody should do something nice for Doc. The boys hit on the perfect solution a party in Doc's honor.[return][return]Because this is Cannery Row and because Steinbeck loved the people he wrote about in these stories, the road to the party is truly hilarious. Of course Mack and the boys have no money that is a given. So they hit on a sure-fire way of raising the necessary funds catching the frogs that are one of the staples of Doc s biological supply company and selling them to Doc. Naturally, with no money for gas and no car, they need same which, equally naturally, they borrow from Doc.[return][return]The frog collecting expedition alone is enough to recommend the book. BUT what follows Doc's appreciation party is a superb piece of writing. Everyone on Cannery Row wants to contribute and attend, including the prostitutes at Flora s, who work out a rotation for attendance at the party while making sure that business, always brisk, is taken care of. The party (which Doc has suspected and quite rightfully dreads) starts off well and then degenerates into one of the most spectacular brawls in all literature. Everything in the book leads up to this event, and it s worth reading and rereading, just so you don t miss anything in your haste to race through the pages, laughing so hard you can hardly see the print in front of you. I can only hope that such a party did take place for Ricketts and that Steinbeck was drawing on fond memories when he wrote Cannery Row.[return][return]While the party is the grand finale and Mack and the boys are the motivating force there are others who in habit the neighborhood--the Chinese store owner, the couple who live in an abandoned steam pipe, the prostitutes, mysterious figures who come and go--the book is a treasure of skillfully drawn, memorable characters.[return][return]Cannery Row was one of Steinbeck s late works, and while it does share the structure of his very earliest, it s the work of a master who knew exactly what he was doing.
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