“Cannery Row in Monterrey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
This is perhaps one of the greatest first sentences ever written into any novel. Steinbeck is best known for The Grapes of Wrath, the novel that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature. For me, I’ve always been a fan of his book, Cannery Row. This is the one I’ve always regarded as Steinbeck’s masterpiece. In this book, Doc, the oddly dislocated marine biologist and Mack, the putative leader of the local stumblebums, are not put out by their poverty of material, but rather enriched by their hope and possibility. Theirs is a world of flophouses, tenderhearted and straightforward hookers, and the natural beauty and stench that surrounds them. Steinbeck rendered them in all of their unvarnished beauty; a people caught between eras who led a threadbare existence but very rich, communal lives.
This book is fairly populated by hobos. In hobo-lore, canneries were a good place to get work on the West Coast, particularly Monterrey, where one could also sleep on the beach. Steinbeck’s coastal atmosphere is a pungent slice of down-at-the-heels America, populated by “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” even though a look through another keyhole would yield “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men” for, in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, they are all the same thing.
I love the language in this book. Very often I heard criticism of Steinbeck as being “too spare”–always from lesser writers who were not fit to knock on his door. What thrills me in his books is that, like Nelson Algren, he does not appraise his creations, or moralize; they are who they are. There are a million reasons people wind up where they do in life. His bums are the genuine article, fully committed to bum-hood, his whores honest about what you get for what you pay, and best of all, Doc, a collector of sea creatures, is the kind of man who tips his hat to dogs. Mack, a good-natured hustler and swindler, is one of those human case studies of “the good in the bad and the bad in the good.” And there’s Eddie, who supplies the hobos and bums with recycled booze filched from the backwash of the paying customers’ drinks…yum; and Dora Flood, the pragmatic keeper of the restaurant/whorehouse The Bear Flag. These are Americans. These are the people who the great Nelson Algren once observed “lived behind the billboards.” What a joy it has been to become reacquainted with Steinbeck. Dust this one off and rediscover a country no longer with us. We know the people in these books, they may go by different names and occupations now, but they still walk the walk.
There are any number of neighborhoods in my own city that, right now, reflect the same hardscrabble poverty Steinbeck described eight decades ago. I see men selling tube socks and bottles of water at the off-ramps in the city; panhandlers looking to feed themselves and hustlers selling two-year old Butterfinger bars for their “church.” Those who survive, have a hustle.
I’ve not seen an inheritor of Steinbeck in the literary world. Writing about working people seems to be out of fashion. I’m not whining; there are a great many writers who excite me right now–Jonathan Lethem, who writes with limitless imagination and immense humor; Murakami, who seems to take new shape with every book; Elizabeth Crane, whose short stories strike the heart and intellect with equal force; there is a lot of great writing right now.
I have a soft spot for Steinbeck and Nelson Algren, John Dos Passos and Carl Sandburg though. They were writers still trying to supply a definition for the ever-changing nation we were then still forming. They found it big, impossibly loud and full of hope; the body politic of our new nation hungry for a cultural identity of its own. Ambition writ large. We were willing to fix our country then. We were, as a nation, a community of tribes to be sure, but a community nonetheless. Sometimes I imagine I’d like to conjure their ghosts and show them the nation we made of all of that ambition; all of the murder and conquest. . .all of the hope and sweat and sacrifice. What would they think? Could they bear to tell us?
I feel like they’d understand. They had to hustle when they were alive to make their marks as artists and as witnesses. Like I said before, Those who survive, have a hustle. This is mine.