“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.”
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 flop-houses, tenderhearted and straight-forward hookers, and the natural beauty and stench that surrounds them.
This book is fairly populated by hobos, and in the hobo-lore, canneries were a good place to get work on the West Coast; particularly Monterey, 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 (collector of sea creatures, and the kind of man who tips his hat to dogs), Mack (good natured hustler and swindler), who is one of those human case studies of “the good in the bad, and the bad in the good.” Eddie supplies the hobos and bums with recycled booze filched from the backwash of the paying customers’ drinks. . .yum. Dora Flood is the pragmatic keeper of the restaurant/whorehouse, the Bear Flag.
These are Americans. These are the people of whom 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.